Growing up, 24-year-old Purity Lakara loathed wild animals.
When she was 13 years old, a pack of hyenas ambushed and killed 37 of her family’s sheep while her younger brother was out grazing them, reducing her family to poverty overnight.
“Only one lamb returned home! It was hard on my parents,” the mother of one from the village of Meshanani in southern Kenya told Atmos. “Wild animals were not things to be embraced but were supposed to be poisoned and killed.”
It was not only goats, sheep, and cows that her village lost to predators like lions and hyenas. Lakara says elephants destroyed water pans and neighboring villages’ crops—and even killed people. Without gates and fences to keep wild animals out of the villages, it was a liability to live so close to them while growing up, Lakara notes.
Today, Lakara is among eight trailblazing young Maasai women at the forefront of championing wildlife protection and safety in East Africa. Known as Team Lioness, drawing from the courage exhibited by female lions, Lakara’s group is Kenya’s first all-women team of community rangers. They are under the authority of the Olgulului Community Wildlife Rangers and funded by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).
Located at the Olgulului-Ololarashi Group Ranch on the Kenyan-Tanzanian border, Team Lioness protects the traditional Maasai community land surrounding Amboseli National Park. Positioned at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro, Kenya’s Amboseli National Park is a UNESCO-designated biosphere reserve with a variety of ecological zones. With its natural dry mountain forest, savanna rangelands, wetlands, mountains, and swamps, it is home to over 600 bird species, according to Kenya Wildlife Services.
Amboseli is also inhabited by a wide variety of mammals and predator species, including elephants, African lions, buffaloes, zebras, gazelles, cheetahs, leopards, giraffes, hippopotamuses, crocodiles, and baboons, among others.
The Olgulului rangeland is six times larger than Amboseli National Park (about 392 square kilometers) and surrounds 95 percent of the park. (The other five percent is subdivided community-owned land.)
James Isiche, IFAW’s East Africa regional director, told Atmos that Amboseli National Park has underground water aquifers from Mount Kilimanjaro that appear throughout the year. The springs make the park very important for wildlife and livestock survival during the dry season, as most of the area is arid and has few water sources.
“The animals congregate in the park when it’s dry. But when it rains, all the animals venture out to the Olgulului Group Ranch until it’s dry again—making the group ranch important for the survival of the national park.”
Team Lioness is the first line of defense against the retaliatory killing of predators like hyenas and lions caused by human-wildlife conflicts. Additionally, they protect mammals like elephants and gazelles, among others, from poaching, bushmeat hunting, and illegal trafficking.
In February of last year, the team underwent an intensive three-week military training on GPS radio operation, solving human-wildlife conflict, protecting themselves from wild animals, and combating poaching.