Purity lakara, Maasai ranger who patrols lands in Kenya’s Amboseli National Park which is known for its free roaming elephants and view of Mount Kilimanjaro, is very excited to see her family for the first time since the Covid-19 pandemic was declared.
She stated that she missed eating with her family, playing and hanging around her baby girl, fetching water for her mother, even helping her brothers herding cattle, and everything else they usually do while they are at home.
Purity Lakara, a 23-year-old, is one of eight women who make up Team Lioness, which is a unit in the Olugului Community (OCWR), and is the first in her family to secure employment.
The rangers patrol the Olugului/Olarashi Group Ranch (OOGR), a 580-square-mile (541 383, 322 kilometres) horseshoe of a community owned land that almost encircles Amboseli National Park, a safari destination 134 miles (215, 65 kilometres) southeast of Nairobi.
When Kenya closed its regional and international borders and the tourism industry and livestock markets which the community depends on disappeared, OCWR cancelled all leaves and asked its rangers to stay at their posts indefinitely to protect wildlife from desperate poachers.
Now that the country is cautiously and positively opening and safari visitors are returning, the rangers are finally able to return to their villages, two by two.
When Purity Lakara arrived in Meshenani, Kenya, on the 29th July 2020, she was met by neighbours and family members who escorted her to her home while singing and clapping as she held her 2-year-old baby in her arms.
She stated that her mother said she was very happy because she was back, they have been longing for that day ad they were all near her, enjoying ad celebrating.
The young lady is the sole breadwinner for her 11 member family.
Team Lioness was established by the global non-profit “International Fund for Animal Welfare” (IFAW) in early 2019 after the Maasai community leader, Kiruyan Katamnoi who is affectionately refered to as Mama Esther, challenged the organisation to employ women from the community as rangers.
The Maasai communities are allegedly patriarchal and therefore women are excluded from leadership and decision making and the community ranger unit that patrols the Group Ranch was therefore exclusively male.
Christopher Kiarie, IFAW program operations and grants manager, stated that while IFAW was excited about the suggestion, the men in the OCWR and the wider community were sceptical.
The community lands are large, almost half the size of the state of Rhode Island, and a typical OCWR patrol can cover 12 miles (19, 31 kilometres) of difficult land on foot, often in poor conditions.
Unlike the Kenya Wildlife Service, which patrols the Amboseli National Park, the OCWR are unarmed, therefore they have to rely on their skills when dealing with dangerous animals or violent people and call Kenya Wildlife Service for back-up if they think a situation might not go well.
The women nominated for Team Lioness, one from each community’s eight clans, also had their doubts.
One of the rangers, Sharon Nankinyi, stated that before she thought she would not make it but once they went for training they became very strong women and they proved to the community that what a man can do, a woman can do it better.
Under normal conditions, Team Lioness rangers work three weeks on, when they rotate around the OCWR’s six camps and mobile unit, and one week off.
A typical day might begin at 05:00 with a run and breakfast, followed by a briefing and morning patrol, which normally takes four hours.
Depending on their daily assignments, the rangers might spend the afternoon on base, ready to respond to an emergency call before debriefing of the day’s activities.
Despite occupying separate sleeping and bathing quarters, they do exactly the same job as their 68 male colleagues and are assigned patrols in co-ed groups of varying sizes.
They note the locations and activities of wildlife, talk to members of the community to gather information about suspicious or problematic activities, and help wherever they are needed, such as getting a stuck elephant out of a muddy waterhole or locating children who have roamed too far from the village.
While two-thirds of the men in the ranger unit are illiterate, the members of Team Lioness are educated to the equivalent of a high school diploma and excel at writing the reports essential to IFAW’s “tenBoma” approach to wildlife security, in which the organization partners with other NGOs and ranger teams, community members, and Interpol to combine actionable local intelligence and data analysis.
OCWR’s Director of Operations, Patrick Papatiti, stated that as he observed the team working to persuade community members from hunting lions or hyenas that killed livestock, he could see that the male rangers, selected because they ranked among the community’s best warriors, have changed their attitudes working with women.
He stated that the men now take the women as colleagues.
Working as a wildlife ranger anywhere in the world is a tough and dangerous job.
Every year, the International Ranger Federation and Thin Green Line Foundation mark World Ranger Day on the 31st of July, by publishing a roll of honour commemorating the rangers and staff known to have died on duty over the past 12 months.
Almost a third of the 138 deaths recorded this year were homicides.
Alongside natural causes, drowning, wildlife attacks and motor vehicle accidents, their 2020 roll featured a new cause of death category called Covid-19, to which five of the rangers listed had died from.
The pandemic has only made Team Lioness’ job harder.
There are huge losses in tourism revenue, Kiarie stated that Amboseli National Park’s revenues declined more than 90%, which forced government funded agencies in the region to cut back on patrols.
The OCWR’s funding via IFAW is based on donations and not affected in the same way, the community rangers stepped up operations to fill the gap.
There was a week when the risk of poaching was particularly high, Team Lioness went from one or two patrols to three patrols a day, and all together covered 35 miles on foot.
Social distancing measures have made it hard for rangers to meet with community members to gather information about potential poaching activity or resolve issues.
Communication is already hard to maintain on community lands because of poor cell phone reception, a problem that has been brought about by wet weather during this time of year.
When camp solar panels can’t generate power, the rangers have to turn their phones off to save battery, this minimises the opportunities to receive tip offs on poaching.
Sharon Nankinyi stated that since Corona started there’s bush meat poaching because people are jobless, they end up killing gazelle, giraffes so that they can feed their children.
After receiving tip offs from the community in April, the OCWR let out a patrol team, which included three members of Team Lioness, and discovered that four men had killed a giraffe the day before, roasted the meat and left what they could not eat to collect later.
The rangers called on Kenya Wildlife Service for support and set an ambush.
When the men returned, they were arrested.
One of the rangers who was on the scene, Ruth Sikeita, stated that it is very bad when the same people you are working with, in the community, and always tell the importance of wildlife are the ones to kill those wild animals.
Patrick Papatiti stated that while bush meat poachers had increased over time, the killing of elephants for ivory has declined.
He estimates that between three to five elephants were poached on community lands annually from when the OCWR was established in 2010 until IFAW began to support the unit in 2018, when only one elephant was lost.
No more elephants have been killed on the Group Ranch since.