Editor’s note: This article was published before the coronavirus pandemic, and may not reflect the current situation on the ground.
The world of wildlife protection in Kenya has long been dominated by men, who risk life and limb for our endangered species. But thanks to an innovative project, that could all be about to change.
To be a ranger on the frontlines of wildlife conservation is arguably one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. And yet in the heartlands of Kenya, there are a hardy handful of women lacing their boots and standing up for wildlife every single day.
Anne Maloi is one of those women. The 26-year-old radio operator grew up in the Eselenkei Conservation Area, a parcel of Maasai land at the foot of mighty Kilimanjaro, and has been a ranger with the Big Life Foundation—a Kenya-based organization that partners with local communities to protect local land and wildlife—for almost a year.
The day we speak, I can hear a baby crying nearby. Anne tells me it’s her five-day-old daughter, Alanna. She shares that she’s a single mum and she chose the name Alanna because it means ‘Precious’ in her local language.
The way Anne sees it, precious things should be protected—and that’s a maxim she lives by. On any given day, Big Life rangers like Anne help coordinate and facilitate the treatment of injured elephants; watch over the weather-beaten, ageing rhinos; stop the watering holes from being poisoned; and arrest the poachers who come bearing snares and spears. Anne may be softly spoken—but you pity the fool who underestimates her resolve.
Anne’s life has changed dramatically in the last 12 months. This time last year, she was working as a receptionist at a local hotel. It was a steady job, but it wasn’t her passion. You see, Anne’s late father was a conservationist, and he nurtured her love for the natural world from a very early age. “He used to tell me that these animals, our Big Five, are the backbone of Kenya,” she reminisces. “They are not only beautiful animals but they’re also our main income generator. They provide jobs and bring travelers … we need to protect them.”
“I love my job, but the hard part is dealing with the male rangers looking down on us. They either say we do nothing, or we do everything wrong, which is not true.”
When the chance arose for her to become a ranger, Anne seized it. Supported by The Thin Green Line Foundation (TGLF), Big Life provides rangers with the vital support they need to be effective, such as a living wage and proper working conditions. While TGLF works with rangers and on-the-ground organizations worldwide, it recently teamed up with The Intrepid Foundation in Kenya to empower and encourage more women like Anne to become rangers. The initiative, funded by donations to The Intrepid Foundation from everyday travelers, will be launched this year, and aims to train 15 new female rangers in the space of 12 months.
Craig Millar, head of security and field operations for Big Life, believes the female training project will help change the status quo. “In this part of Kenya, equality of the sexes is far behind most of the world,” he says. “It has only been the past few years where female rangers have even been a possibility. Being properly employed gives women more freedom and control over their lives. Then you add in the fact that they’re a ranger, in charge of enforcing rules and laws, and it’s a huge step forwards.”
But even Craig admits that it takes a strong woman to brave the post. When imagining the hardest part of a ranger’s job, many of us would assume it’s confronting volatile poachers or having to see an animal slaughtered. For Anne, as tough as these things are, they’re not the toughest part of her day.
Anne’s biggest challenge is a hurdle that women all over the globe are battling: Working in a man’s world. “I love my job, but the hard part is dealing with the male rangers looking down on us,” she says. “They either say we do nothing, or we do everything wrong, which is not true. We are struggling as women; we need to show the men that we can not only do the job but that we can beat them at it too”.
In the face of all of this, Anne and her female colleagues are out there, day in and day out, protecting what’s important, often at great personal risk. And they’re good at it. “Anne was an obvious choice for the radio operator position,” says Craig. “In training, she performed excellently and immediately struck a chord with the panel with her confidence and clear communication. Having female rangers, like Anne, also means the community is much more comfortable reporting any issues.”
“It’s not written anywhere that a lady can’t, or shouldn’t, be a ranger. Everything that men can do, women can do too. As long as you’re passionate, you can do it. In fact, you can probably do it better”.
Anne’s work is an immense source of pride. You can hear it in her voice as she describes monitoring herds of elephants, reporting on incidents of tree harvesting and working alongside the rangers out on patrol. Every bit the battle-ready feminist, Anne isn’t intimidated by the discrimination. Instead, she lets it motivate her.
When asked what advice she would give to any young girl wanting to be a ranger she declares: “You are capable of doing it. It’s not written anywhere that a lady can’t, or shouldn’t, be a ranger. Everything that men can do, women can do too. As long as you’re passionate, you can do it. In fact, you can probably do it better”.
Female rangers are a critical piece of the global conservation puzzle. And as a woman, it’s impossible not to be moved by the outlook and fierce determination of Anne, and those like her. Yes, they’re nurturers. Yes, they’re mothers. Yes, they have families to care for, feed and love. But what the likes of TGLF, Big Life, and The Intrepid Foundation have done is create a supportive environment for these women to funnel their skills and strengths into a job that makes a difference.
And Anne’s job makes a difference.
Tayla Gentle is a freelance writer and producer specializing in adventure travel. Her work has featured in outlets such as Lonely Planet, AFAR, AWOL and Red Bull Australia. Her spirit country is Myanmar.