The putrid stench of a dead lion, killed by poachers, wafting from the forest would sicken young Eunice Maantei as she was growing up in Imurutot, a village bordering the expansive Amboseli National Park. So did the unpleasant smell of charcoal burning deep inside the forest.
“One day, I will stop this destruction,” she would say to herself. That day came in February 2019. Ms Maantei, now 20, is one of the eight women in Team Lioness, an all-female community ranger unit formed last year.
The unit patrols Olgulului-Ololarashi Group Ranch (OOGR), which is part of the 150,000-acre community land encircling the park. They are backed up by the 68 all-male members of lgulului Community Wildlife Rangers (OCWR).
The OOGR, which straddles the Kenya-Tanzania border, hosts the natural habitats and migratory corridors for various species of wild animals, including the park’s 2,000 elephants, according to the International Fund for Animal Welfare (Ifaw).
Besides ensuring the safety of wildlife and biodiversity, Team Lioness educates locals on the importance of taking part in wildlife conservation, which the people in Ms Maantei’s community depends on for survival.
The women, carefully selected from the eight Maasai clans living around the national park — one of Kenya’s major heritage sites — are part of an even bigger cultural mission.
Their work has helped in the fight against gender stereotyping and discrimination in the community.
For, while maa traditions prohibited social interaction between men and women, the fact that the team works alongside men and is providing enviable leadership in conservation has done a lot to change the community’s perception of women.
This has, in turn, debunked myths that limit women’s role in society to domestic chores.
“It used to be a taboo for women and men to sit or eat together,” says Ms Maantei. “Today, however, we freely interact with the male rangers and even go out together on patrols. That was unheard-of in our community,” says the sixth-born in a family of eight.
As fate would have it, the opportunity provided by Ifaw coincided with Ms Maantei’s completion of her secondary education.
Her parents, she says, were happy for her because they had taken note of her passion for conservation.
“They believed I could make a good ranger,” she says.
For three weeks, Ifaw offered intensive training in detection of poaching activities, documenting human-wildlife conflict and solving related disputes. They also received training in self-defence in case of an attack by poachers or wild animals.
For instance, whereas culture prohibit women from climbing trees, which was believed to be a harbinger of infertility, Team Lioness has exposed such myths as unfounded.
Ms Ruth Sikeita recalls the only attack they have encountered so far. An ambush by a buffalo. Some had to scale tall trees while others chose to lie flat on the grassland.
Every day, Team Lioness squad members rise at 5am for a morning run till 6am, when they return to clean up and have their breakfast.
At 8am, decked out in jungle fatigues, they troop out armed with notebooks, pens, binoculars and global positioning system (GPS) devices. Ifaw caters for their everyday needs and pays them a monthly salary. Ms Sikeita says the squad covers at least 20 kilometres in their morning and afternoon patrols.
The afternoon patrol, however, depends on occurrence of emergencies such as wildlife trespassing into farms, people felling trees illegally to burn charcoal or herders driving their animals into the park, she says.
“We usually interact with the herders or visit homesteads to gather as much information as possible,” says Ms Sikeita, who is also a trained Early Childhood and Development Education (ECDE) teacher. Women, she says, are their greatest source of information.
“They have a lot of information because children returning from the grazing fields share news with their mothers first, before anyone else.” The information gathered is shared with the local administration and the Amboseli National Park management for immediate action. Ms Sikeita is married and her mother-in-law takes care of her two children.
“My husband is supportive of my work and my mother-in-law is taking good care of the children. I video-call them every evening,” says Ms Sikeita, whose husband also works away from home.
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