Six days a week, the members of Team Lioness rise at 5 a.m. and head off to work near Amboseli National Park in Kenya. In the dry and dusty savanna, the women are rarer than the elephants, zebra, giraffes and lions that roam the land.
Team Lioness, which will celebrate its second year of service in February, is an all-female group of rangers who help protect the animals that often wander out of the park and into the surrounding community.
The eight women, who are 19 to 30 years old, belong to the Maasai tribe. Many girls from this ethnic group leave school as early as age 10, and those who continue their education have few job opportunities after graduation, especially in fields such as wildlife security and conservation. Before Team Lioness, only men worked as rangers in the Olgulului community.
“I am always proud of seeing myself walking with men in the bush and proud to be the very first female ranger from my community,” said Purity Lakara, who financially supports her six sisters, three brothers and 2-year-old daughter. The job “is important in terms of women empowerment and gender equality.”
The idea for Team Lioness came from a local leader and women’s rights advocate named Kirayian Katamboi, who is fondly known as Mama Esther. (“Mama” is used as a term of respect for older women.) She approached the International Fund for Animal Welfare about creating a corps of female rangers.
Mama Esther and the organization chose a female representative from each of the eight clans in the Olgulului community and enrolled the recruits in an intense three-week course. During the training, they learned how to track poachers, people who kill or take wild animals illegally.
The skill came in handy last July. While out on patrol, the rangers found suspicious footprints in the dirt. They followed them to a piece of meat drying in a tree and waited for the poacher to return to his prize. They nabbed the man, who had illegally killed a giraffe calf, and turned him over to law enforcement.
“My proudest moment was the day we caught a bush meat poacher while patrolling in the community lands,” said Loise Soila Komianto, a former nursery school teacher whose hobbies include herding livestock.
A lot of Team Lioness’s work involves spotting potential threats to the wildlife before it’s too late. During their five-hour shifts, they look for signs of illegal hunting, such as snares and traps, and gather “intelligence” information from community members. They also count animals — from a safe distance. (The park is home to at least 50 mammal species, including more than 2,000 elephants.)
The women live at base camps, miles from family and friends, but they can visit loved ones during their days off, which are seven per month. The coronavirus pandemic has added new challenges to their tough profession. Tourists on safari helped keep poachers away, but the drop in the number of international visitors has forced the rangers to step up their guard duties. In addition, the women were not allowed to return home for about four months, to avoid catching or transmitting the novel coronavirus.
But even through the hard times, their commitment to — and pride in — Team Lioness has remained strong.
“The opportunity to work as a member of Team Lioness has brought about respect for women in the community,” said Komianto, “as it has shown we can now do what was once thought of as a man’s job.”
She, like many of her two-legged “lionesses,” hopes to pursue a career in wildlife conservation