Amid increased poaching due to the pandemic, the women of Team Lioness are using their prowess to protect Kenyan wildlife that might otherwise threaten them, subverting ideas of predator and prey—and what it means to be at the top of the food chain.
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.
No Easy Task
Lakara’s feelings toward wild animals changed when she was sponsored for her high school education. Attending a school located in the middle of the bush, Lakara watched the animals wander around from her dormitory window. They were so close that they scared her at first, but over time, she realized they were friendlier than she had thought.
“Our teachers taught us about wildlife, why these creatures are important, the benefits we get out of coexisting together. Over those four years, my perspective changed…by the time IFAW made a call for female rangers, my heart wanted to engage more and protect wildlife,” Lakara explains.
Despite her passion and bravery, it is a tall order protecting these animals.
Lakara says human-wildlife conflict has been a significant challenge. Aggressive animals like elephants destroy crops from farms and kill community members. The lions and hyenas invade cattle pens and kill livestock, like sheep and goats.
When a community plans retaliation, such as killing or poisoning the predators, it is the team’s responsibility to address the aggrieved residents and stop them from engaging in violence.
With the COVID-19 pandemic upsetting communities economically, illegal bushmeat hunting has been on the rise. People from surrounding towns, especially on the Kenyan-Tanzanian border, kill small animals—like dik-dik or gazelles—and giraffes for food and economic sustainability.
“It’s a risky job! We are not armed. We encounter snakes, aggressive buffaloes, lions, and bushmeat poachers armed with machetes in the bushes. We risk our lives to protect those of the animals,” Lakara explains.
As the local population grows, land use in the Amboseli landscape is changing and habitats are being destroyed. Historically, the Maa communities surrounding the rangeland were predominantly livestock keepers. Their land was communally owned, and they often migrated in search of pasture.
Over the years, the majority have opted for a sedentary lifestyle. In 2016, Kenya’s Community Land Act gave Maa people the right to own and subdivide their land. As a result, with access to a deed, an individual can now sell the land as their property.
Isiche says the major challenge is that individuals sell the land to people engaging in agriculture, who farm crops attractive to elephants but do not have experience living with animals. Additionally, sedentary lifestyles encourage the Maasai to opt for a boma (livestock enclosure), reducing the area available for wildlife.
“The increased frequency of contact between livestock and wild animals and farmers losing their products or their lives to wildlife increases the chance of conflict and retaliation,” explains Isiche.
Affecting Wild Animal Food Chains
Human decisions profoundly impact wild animals’ food chains, with a ripple effect on the entire ecosystem. BirdLife International notes that 61 percent of vultures are killed from poisoning due to human-wildlife conflict and poaching.
In 2019, 20 globally threatened vulture species, including the endangered lappet-faced vulture and critically endangered Rüppell’s vulture, were found dead around a poisoned hyena carcass on the northern border of Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Park.
“Poisoning affects the entire food chain: It affects the ecosystems, including viruses and bacteria that then affect livestock and wildlife, in addition to endangering human lives when they interact with the wild and consume the livestock or illegally sold bushmeat,” explains Isiche.
Furthermore, deforestation, clearing of bushland, and burning charcoal directly affects giraffes’ food sources, as they depend on the trees for foliage. Over time, this reduces the food available for the carnivores.
The African Wildlife Foundation observes that, in only 30 years, the number of Africa’s giraffes has plummeted by 40 percent. Both Kordofan and Nubian giraffes are now critically endangered under the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species, with only approximately 4,650 mature individuals. The reticulated giraffe—one of Kenya’s signature species and a tourist attraction in the north—has steadily declined and is now endangered. The Maasai and Rothschild giraffes have declined by up to 67 percent since the 1970s.
The foundation attributes this loss to land conversion for agriculture and infrastructure development and the growth of human settlements in wildlife-rich areas. Additionally, human activities, like local markets for bushmeat and giraffe parts, overgrazing, and charcoal burning, are reducing the ecological integrity of the Maasai giraffe’s historical habitats.
Isiche warns that extensive agriculture in arid landscapes upstream from Amboseli could impact water-dependent animals, like hippopotamuses and elephants. Drilling boreholes coupled with increasingly prolonged drought periods risks reducing underground water.
“Some of the results of these actions will only be seen over time,” warns Isiche. “Humans look at the present moment, but in conservation, though today is important, we have to make sure for posterity that the resources we are using and protecting will be there for the long term.”
Some of the results of these actions will only be seen overtime. Humans look at the present moment, but in conservation, though today is important, we have to make sure for posterity that the resources we are using and protecting will be there for the long term.
Enticing Communities to Maintain Nature
Between Kenya’s Amboseli National Park and Tanzania’s Kilimanjaro National Park, animals roam freely across the 26,000 acres of community land that links the two parks.
After Kenya’s 2016 Community Land Act, this movement was at risk of disruption when individuals owning the land obtained the right to subdivide it. For this reason, the Olgulului Group Ranch leased the land from about 10,000 community members at the cost of about $8,000 annually.
“The national parks alone do not have enough land to hold wildlife and nearly 2000 elephants throughout the year. The pastoralists, too, need open land for the livestock to move and graze as per the season. We had to facilitate wildlife movement and safeguard livestock production, which is becoming increasingly difficult with the land-use change in this landscape,” explains Isiche.
The community benefits from the ability to graze their livestock and from employment, such as among the Team Lioness community rangers. The Olgulului Group Ranch also offers education sponsorships and vocational training, pays land leaseholds, and has built social amenities, including schools, dispensaries, and sweet water points. Meanwhile, women have found the opportunity to sell products to the group ranch, such as foodstuffs and jewelry made from beads.
Isiche says IFAW has been building structures and converting the land into a conservancy. Conservancy status would allow the community to attract investors who can fund tourism facilities to generate revenue for the residents.
Overcoming Cultural Norms
Team Lioness is the first group of women rangers in a unit of 76 members, which has operated for 10 years without a single woman.
“Bringing in Team Lioness was a gender issue, appreciating that we need to create some sense of equitability in male-dominated conservation careers,” operations director Patrick Papatiti told Atmos.
Although they were chosen and nominated by their eight clans, Papatiti says it was difficult at first for the community, as they perceived the risks a ranger faces as more of a warrior’s responsibility.
For Lakara, despite the risks accompanying the job, she says she does it not just for her benefit but for that of future generations. “The high school I went to was built by a wildlife charity and so are many in this area. It has helped many girls and boys access education and better their lives. As much as the wild animals gain from our protection, we gain tremendously from them, too.”
Over the last year in the area, six people have died (some of these deaths have been linked to heavy rains and people caught in the bush as a result) and close to 100 livestock have been killed. However, Papatiti says that no lion or elephant has died of retaliation. “We received information on time and responded very fast.”
Team Lioness has been vital in reducing violence emerging from human-wildlife conflict, gathering intelligence from community women that has proved crucial in preventing retaliation. Additionally, the women have helped in understanding community grievances and negotiating individual compensations after loss of livestock.
They have arrested bushmeat hunters and have improved relations between residents and the Olgulului Community Wildlife Rangers. Information gathered through Team Lioness has been used to advise partner organizations working to protect herders and their livestock from lions and elephants and to link herders to partners for compensation.
Papatiti says any ranger’s main job is to observe, advise, and protect the community. Given the communal way of living among the Maa, women play as fundamental a role as men in sharing stories and vital information when they congregate in the evening around the fire to talk after a long day.
While on leave, the women of Team Lioness take the time to talk to girls in their villages about their work, empowering them to venture beyond societal norms. But, the pandemic has interrupted both these interactions and the vital information gathering.
Papatiti says the security team has minimized their interactions with people, making it hard to access information from the villages. Currently, the group relies on calling a contact rather than going to the village in person.
Despite such difficulties, the team carries on with their good work. “It’s a tough job, requiring a lot of sacrifices, yet they have proved it’s doable,” says Isiche. “I hope they open up other young girls’ and women’s eyes to the fact that they can do anything. Not necessarily being rangers, but anything their male counterparts are doing, as long as they put their hearts into it.”
Isiche sees Team Lioness as pioneering and hopes that the women become role models in their societies, so that when opportunities arise in other areas, including investment in tourism, more women get the chance to further develop their skills.
And it seems to be working: For Joyce Emantipei, a 37-year-old mother of six from the village of Lisa, these girls are a pride to the community women. “I never had the chance to go to school, but my girls now have one. I do not want them to experience female genital mutilation or get married early. They have role models to look up to now! I tell my girls to study and wear uniforms as these girls do.”
Being part of Team Lioness has brought pride to 21-year-old Sharon Nankinyi’s mother and has earned her respect from her father.
Nankinyi says that among her Maa community, women are seen as only necessary for childbearing and taking care of the household chores, such as fetching water and firewood. They are never held in high regard. Culturally, in the past, a Maasai girl would not address her male elders. But these women’s positions as rangers have given them the privilege to do so.
With the salary Nankinyi earns, she pays the school fees for her younger brother and helps her family out with their daily needs. A first for a girl in her family.
“My mum is so proud of me, and my dad respects me now,” Nankinyi says with a smile. “They see me as a strong woman. As a result, my father now respects my mother. For a long time, women in my community were held in low esteem, even by their husbands. I am proud to be part of this change.”
Neo-Natural is a study of humankind's relationship to nature in the age of climate change, including topics such as resource depletion and regeneration, gene editing, cellular agriculture, and the increasingly inarguable effects of the Anthropocene on indigenous communities around the globe. It features contributions from artists like Yoko Ono, ANOHNI, Ryan McGinley, Daniel Beltra, and more, all attempting to answer the question: What does "natural" mean in the modern world?