As Maasai ranger Sharon Nankinyi heads back to camp after completing her second 20-km foot patrol of the day through the Kenyan bush, she’s more than ready for bed. Nankinyi is one of eight women in Team Lioness, a unit within Olgulului Community Wildlife Rangers (OCWR), which patrols the Maasai Olgulului-Ololarashi Group Ranch — a 1,500-sq-km horseshoe of community-owned lands that almost encircle southern Kenya’s Amboseli National Park.
Usually, the ranger unit works for three weeks before getting a week off, completing one or two patrols a day, where they mark the locations and activities of elephants, zebras and other wildlife even as they guard against poachers. But shortly after the Covid-19 pandemic was declared on 11 March and workers around the world were asked to stay home, the OCWR cancelled all leave and asked the unit to stay at work indefinitely and to cover more ground per day than before. As Kenya prohibited interregional and international travel, and tourism and local markets disappeared, the risk of desperate people hunting wildlife to feed their families was very real.
In April, the unit’s fears were realised. After receiving a tip-off, the OCWR dispatched a patrol — which included three members of Team Lioness — and discovered the place where four men had killed a giraffe and roasted its meat. They had left behind what they couldn’t eat, which they would come back for later; so the rangers set an ambush and sought the help of Kenya Wildlife Service rangers — who patrol within Amboseli National Park and are permitted to carry weapons, unlike the OCWR — to make the arrest.
“It’s very bad when the same people that you are working with, telling them the importance of wild animals, and you find them killing those wild animals,” says ranger Ruth Sikeita, who was on the scene.
Team Lioness was established by global non-profit International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) in 2019 after Maasai community leader Kiruyan Katamboi, affectionately referred to as Mama Esther, challenged the organisation to employ women from the community. At the time, Mama Esther was part of a cooperative of 60 women who, assisted by IFAW, was turning a profit of US$3,000 ($4,000) from selling their crafts to visitors, and providing a commissary to the all-male OCWR unit. But Mama Esther believed the community’s women could do more, despite the Maasai’s patriarchal values which excluded them from leadership and decision-making positions.
Christopher Kiarie, IFAW’s project manager, says that while IFAW was enthusiastic about the suggestion to hire women in the OCWR, the men in the community had their doubts. The Group Ranch is vast and most patrols have to be done on foot — often in poor weather — due to the difficult terrain.
Even the women nominated for Team Lioness, one by each of the community’s eight clans, weren’t sure they would be up to the job. For most of them, a typical day meant helping out their mothers around the home. But they were nothing if not determined; and after completing three weeks of basic training, they were confident of rising to the occasion.
“We were just thinking like we are nothing to the community, we are just fit for fetching water, giving birth,” says Nankinyi. “But now, we’ve broken the taboo, that we can work with the men.”
Working as a ranger anywhere in the world is a dangerous gig. The International Ranger Federation and Thin Green Line Foundation mark World Ranger Day every 31 July by publishing a Roll of Honour to commemorate the rangers who died on duty over the past 12 months. Of the 137 deaths recorded, almost a third were homicides; other causes of death include natural causes, drownings, wildlife attacks and motor vehicle accidents, and more recently, Covid-19, which claimed five lives.
Under normal conditions, a typical day for Team Lioness and their 68 male colleagues might begin at 5am with a morning run and breakfast, followed by a briefing and morning patrol. Depending on their daily assignments, the rangers might spend the afternoon on base, ready to respond to emergency calls, before completing an evening patrol — if they hadn’t gone out in the morning — and debrief of the day’s activities.
While two-thirds of the men in the ranger unit are illiterate, the members of Team Lioness have a secondary school education and are skilled at writing the reports that are essential to IFAW’s work. The organisation partners with other NGOs and ranger teams, community members and Interpol to fight wildlife crime. While they depend on maintaining good communication with the community to learn about injured animals or potential poaching incidents, they also have to leverage those relationships to resolve human-wildlife conflict. While nobody is allowed to reside within Amboseli National Park, an estimated 25,000 people live on the community lands surrounding it, which is also where the wildlife that passes through the park spend most of its time.
When aggressive predators come sniffing around the village’s boma (or homestead) in search of an easy meal, the men typically retaliate by hunting the intruders to limit losses of their cattle and goats. Part of Team Lioness’ job is to convince local community members not to kill the wildlife roaming their lands, even though there is no compensation offered for livestock that’s been predated upon.
“It is also dangerous because they, the community, have spears, and we are not armed,” says ranger Purity Lakara. But working with part of their unit, Team Lioness has been successful. Head of operations at OCWR Patrick Papatiti says that while bushmeat poaching incidents have increased over time, the killing of elephants for ivory on community lands seems to have stopped completely due to OCWR’s community outreach. The male rangers — who were picked for ranking among the community’s best warriors — have also changed their attitudes to working with their female counterparts.
“I can, without a doubt, see [the men] now take them as colleagues,” says Papatiti. Of course, the Covid-19 pandemic has brought with it challenges. Social distancing measures have made it hard for rangers to meet with community members to gather intelligence. And with the steep drop in tourism revenues, the Kenyan government has had to reduce the activities of groups like the Kenya Wildlife Service, even as the risk of poaching increases, so the OCWR stepped in to fill the gaps.
But for the rangers, the toughest part has been the long separation from their families. As Kenya slowly opens up, with international flights resuming on 1 August, the rangers were overjoyed to be going home for the first time in over four months. While happy that visitors (and tourism dollars) would be returning, they were not without their concerns. Kenya’s case count has been relatively low compared to other countries: as of 19 August, there were 30,636 confirmed cases and 487 Covid-related deaths. While IFAW is providing the rangers with protective gear, the rangers are worried that the movement of people, especially those from outside Kenya, carries risks.
“We are seeing on TV and hearing that Europe and the US are the countries most affected, so we fear they will bring the disease here,” says ranger Sikeita. Lakara and Sikeita were the first two Team Lioness members to return home at the end of July.
“I have missed looking after my cows and preparing my children for school, especially in the morning hours. And making some foods, and sitting and sharing the food together,” says Sikeita, as she packed her bags at camp.
When Lakara arrived back in her home village of Meshenani, she was met at the side of the road by neighbours and family members, who escorted her while singing and clapping as she carried her two-year-old daughter to their home.
Team Lioness’ success has not only changed perceptions within OCWR, but is also influencing attitudes to gender roles in the wider community. Before, women had to keep a distance from male members in their community, even immediate relatives (they weren’t allowed to speak to their fathers at the table, or to eat meals together). But now, they are aff orded a new level of respect.
“I can encourage my fellow ladies here [by demonstrating] that we can also make it,” says Lakara, seated in the shelter of a huge tree, her mother by her side and male family members behind. She is the sole breadwinner in her 11-member family. “You see my brothers here… They are all waiting for me because they treat me now as an important person.”
Looking forward to a post-pandemic world, every member of Team Lioness wants to see more women join their ranks.
“Now they have that passion that they need to be one of Team Lioness, and join me in the job,” says Nankinyi. “I am not married. I finished my education. They see that I’m working, and they can make it just like me.”
Papatiti is also eager to recruit more women. “The number will be determined by the availability of funds,” he says. “When I am given the green light I will kick start the process.”