Inside the elite rangers empowering women and saving wildlife

An all-female ranger group has shared rare insights into how they are advancing intelligence gathering to protect Africa’s unique wildlife.

Members of the eight-woman “Team Lioness” are embedded within what have traditionally been all male patrols, protecting the elephants, lions and buffalo living around the Amboseli National Park in Kenya.

Rangers, recruited from traditional Maasai communities, walk up to 30 kilometres a day, reporting on the health of animals, and working to predict when they could be targeted by poachers. 

The women say their presence is quickly dispelling traditional beliefs about female frailty both within the workforce and the surrounding communities.

Ranger Eunice Mantei told Yahoo Lifestyle Australia that on her first patrol, her male colleagues were concerned she was not up to the job.

Ranger Beatrice Sailepu has learned how to avoid dangerous animals while on patrol. Source: Will Swanson / IFAW

“The men were not sure that we could hack doing the distances walking, and it’s on rough terrain, it’s not paved or anything,” 28-year-old Ms Mantei said via a translator.

“Over and above this, there was concern of what would happen should we across any dangerous wildlife what would happen to us.”

Unexpected threat scares ranger up a tree

Rangers need to have a distinct set of skills to avoid the large and often deadly animals living in the bush.

Walking downwind of elephants has kept Ms Mantei safe from that particular threat, but her closest brush with death came from an unexpected threat in difficult terrain.

Early in their training, she and colleague Beatrice Sailepu, 24, were walking single file through dense forest when they came across one of the region’s deadliest animals.

A lone buffalo.

Team Lioness interview cattle herders during a patrol. Source: Will Swanson for IFAW.

“I see buffalo, and they don’t have warning in the bush. He can kill you,” Ms Mantei said via video link from her tent.

“We are eight ladies and two men, when we are in thebush we see the buffalo feeding.”

Everyone stopped and Ms Sailepu immediately followed protocol.

“When the buffalo come, I slip down flat,” she said.

For Ms Mantei, it was a different story – her instinct overpowered her training, and she took off as fast as she could.

Although frightened the buffalo would catch her, Ms Mantei’s colleagues could do nothing to help her.

What they didn’t realise was that she is a semi-professional runner, and due to her speed she was able to outpace the buffalo and clamber to safety.

“Me, I run because I’m fastest, so I climb the tree,” she said.

For the next 30 minutes, she waited up at the top of the tree, fearing for the safety of her colleagues.

She was relieved to find that despite a few scratches, everyone had survived relatively unscathed.

Since then, Ms Mantei’s running skills have become renowned within her team, giving her the edge over many of her male counterparts.

When a wildebeest became trapped and surrounded by domestic dogs, she was able to cut through the rough terrain faster than the men who set out in cars to save the animal.

‘We can get that information easy’: Key to intelligence gathering

While government rangers patrol the national park, most of the animals spend 70 per cent of their time outside of the protected zone – the 150,000-hectare Olgulului-Ololarashi Group Ranch where humans and wildlife often come into contact.

That’s where community rangers like Team Lioness, which is funded by International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), is key. 

Beatrice Sailepu and Eunice Mantei speak via video link during lockdown amid coronavirus. Source: Michael Dahlstrom

Ranger Sailepu believes that women in traditional Maasai villages are more likely to feel comfortable sharing their local knowledge with other women.

“If there is information somewhere, they tell us,” she said.

“If there is poaching around it’s easy to tell us women.”

Her colleague, Ms Mantei, agrees, adding that women are often aware of what men are plotting when it comes to wildlife attacks.

“In our conservancy, women are very important, because to get information from (other) women is very easy,” she said.

“A report like if there is some information about some people want to kill an animal, so we can get that information.

“It’s a very exciting job”

Despite not being able to return home during COVID-19, the camaraderie has kept these women's spirits up. Source: Michael Dahlstrom

‘Inspiration for the younger girls’

Not only is their information critical in understanding why animals are being targeted, it also empowers women within the community, allowing them to be heard for the first time. 

On one occasion, a lion had killed livestock from within the community and Maasai men were working to retaliate. 

One of the older women who knew about the plan was able to share the information with Team Lioness.

A meeting was quickly organised with the agitated men, the situation was calmed and no lions were harmed.

This candid photo was taken by rangers who have been trained to stay downwind of elephants. Source: Team Lioness / IFAW

TenBoma project manager Chris Kiarie believes that working with women from traditional Maasai communities is not only empowering them to provide for themselves, but also providing a pathway for the next generation.

“The community they come from is a very patriarchal one, such that it’s men who go out and work,” he said.

“That’s why for these particular women it’s seen as quite unusual for them to be doing this.

“They’re providing inspiration for the younger girls but also for the older women.”

Creating order on the border

IFAW’s east Africa communications manager, Jacqueline Nyagah told Yahoo Lifestyle Australia the main threats are human-wildlife conflict, and bushmeat poaching. 

Team Lioness’s patrols include the edge of the porous border between Kenya and Tanzania, making it difficult to police foreign hunters searching for the tiny dik-dik dear and giraffe.

“Poachers can come in from Tanzania, do a poaching and then quickly rush back into Tanzania,” Ms Nyagah said.

“And then it’s also close to a border town that’s growing very rapidly so there’s also a demand for meat for sustenance.” 

“So the rangers will come across small operations used for poaching animals, so either snares or something put together that’s used to blind and frighten.”

“Loud sounds will scare the deer and then the brightness of the light will be literally like a deer in headlights.”

A Team Lioness ranger conducts a patrol within the Olgulului Ololarashi Group Ranch. Source: Will Swanson / IFAW

To combat these incursions, Ms Nyagah said IFAW is working with the Tanzanian authorities and communities on the other side of the border to reduce poaching. 

“The good thing is that we’re working very closely with the Tanzanian authorities and also the communities there to make sure this is minimised.”

“A couple of weeks ago there was a cross border patrol where community rangers from both Kenya and Tanzania patrolled the border for a period of three days. 

“Because of COVID-19 the area of Tanzania, their rangers have been reduced significantly because they rely on tourism.

“Around here, they’re all still employed so they’re forced to increase they area they’re patrolling just to ensure the wildlife is safe.”

A wildebeest snapped during a patrol this week. Source: IFAW / Team Lioness

Unable to return home to see their children

After coronavirus hit, the rangers have had to enforce extreme social distancing measures in order to prevent its spread to vulnerable communities.

Many Team Lioness members return home at least once every three weeks, but have been unable to leave their base since mid-March.

“Since COVID-19 started we cannot go home to see our family,” Ms Mantei said.

“There’s a big difference, even in our community because we cannot interact.

“For now we have a distance with them, because in our community we cannot get sanitiser or masks.”

Despite longing to see their families again, the women have grown closer, and find ways to stay entertained, talking over hot cups of tea and playing games.

Rangers have continued to patrol despite COVID-19, with these figures showing the wildlife they have observed. Source: IFAW

Ms Sailepu lives 50 kilometres from the Team Lioness base and hasn’t seen her three-year-old son in months.

Although she misses her child, she is determined to stay on and continue her patrols - there is something bigger at play.

She wants to ensure the wildlife is still prevalent when he grows up.

“I decided to be a ranger to protect our wildlife for the coming generation,” she said.

“For me it’s really integral to be helping this wildlife.”

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