Naomi Simaloi loves wild animals, a lot. Her favourite animal to see? Lions.
“Because I’m a lioness!” she says with a huge smile.
“And what if you meet one outside unexpectedly?”
“I love it, I feel great when I see one!” she says.
That would certainly not be most people’s reaction to coming across a lion out in the open, but she is not only fearless, but also smart and trained to handle them, among other wild and dangerous animals.
“Yes, I would be in danger, but I have tactics of avoiding it. I’ve met them before, and when you see one you just watch it and decide what path to safely take away from it,” she says.
While other children were dreaming of becoming engineers and such, Naomi, 24, dreamt of protecting animals as a ranger, even though she had never seen a female one.
“I was brought up here in Amboseli with wildlife and we have lived together. There are some with whom we even share waterpoints,” she says.
- Being a parent of a sleepwalking child is terrifying
- Sex education begins at home
- If you cannot take care of children, don't sire them
- Tough love: When does a parent say enough is enough?
“Growing up, I would see men doing conservation work to protect the animals and I wanted to be like them. The reason we still have animals today is because we had people conserving them back then, so I wanted to be one of those people.
She laughs and smiles easily, probably because today, she is living her childhood dream. Naomi is a member of Team Lioness, one of the first all-women ranger units in Kenya. Its 16 members are all from the Maasai community living around Amboseli, two from each clan.
The team was formed by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), under the Olgulului Community Wildlife Rangers (OCWR). Their role is to protect the traditional community land that surrounds Amboseli National Park and prevent poaching. They also manage human-wildlife conflict.
The day after our interview, we go to see Team Lioness at their base. As we speak, a distance away, the community is furious, with morans up in arms. A lion killed 26 goats from one homestead last night.
“And one of the problems is that they don’t eat any of them in full. They bite one goat, then another, and another,” they told us.
The rangers know exactly which lion it is because it has done it before. So does the community, and now, they want it dead.
These are the kinds of human-wildlife conflicts they face and usually have to calm the community down, a treacherous duty. They tell us that we cannot accompany them to the location at the moment because tempers are too high right now, so it wouldn’t be safe for us.
“So tell me what you would do when an elephant kills a person,” Eunice Peneti had told us the day before, and it becomes even clearer now.
Eunice isn’t just any ranger. You come across her expertly navigating the Amboseli terrain in a landcruiser. One thing about Eunice is that she loves a challenge. First, her reason for joining the team was to prove a point.
“When they announced they wanted to hire ladies, we wanted to join because, in our community, they say women can’t do this job. So we decided to join and prove them wrong, and we have! Now I’m even a driver, so I do what the men are doing,” she says proudly.
But how did she end up becoming a driver? It was because of two incidents, she says. One of their roles is to report when they come across sick animals, and they happened upon a wildebeest whose leg was injured and needed their help. However, wild dogs had sensed its weakness and moved in.
“The driver asked if anyone could drive so that he could scare away the wild dogs. No one knew how to drive. That’s when I wondered if I should try and become a driver, but I left it at that,” she says.
“Then another incident happened where our director needed the car to go to another location, but there was no driver. So I decided to try and see if I would be able to learn how to drive. I applied, wrote a letter to my director, he sent it to Nairobi, IFAW approved and I eventually became a driver.”
Being from a patriarchal society, the men were skeptical at first. “When I first heard that female rangers were being employed, I thought they wouldn’t be able to do it because as a Maasai we thought women can only do light jobs,” says Julius Ole Seleka a resident of Lemomo.
“Because of Team Lioness, we have realised that everyone is equal. We have realised after that there is no difference between what they do and what the male rangers do. So if more opportunities for work as rangers come, women should also be involved, just like men. They have helped, in a big way. They have done the job so well, they have helped their families by working just like the men.”
Not all the men are ecstatic about it, but that does not bother Eunice in the slightest.
“You know when some men see you gripping the steering wheel of a Landcruiser like this,” she says, demonstrating it, they say, ‘this woman wants to compete with us.’ But I am not competing with them. We are helping each other work.”
Jackson Sitonik, a ranger and warden of the Olguluilui Wildlife Community Rangers, agrees with this.
“I have worked with them. They have made me happy because as Maasais we thought they couldn’t do this job. After all, it is difficult, but I can confirm that they can do it. They have one who can drive, they have a base where they are the majority and they have been able to cover this area. If a man does patrols for 22 kilometres on foot, they do the same,” he says.
All teams of rangers have to do at least 20 kilometres of patrol daily on foot, a gruelling task, but one the women have taken in stride. But that’s not all.
“There have been many human-wildlife conflicts and they have managed them well. Even today over 20 goats were eaten by hyenas and they were the ones handling it. So I can confirm they are very useful,” says Jackson.
This particular skill has come in extremely handy, because as Eunice says, in their community, women are the ones who go to fetch firewood, they go to fetch water, so they become victims of wildlife attacks, and also know poachers’ paths and hideouts, so she says that most of the information comes from women.
CONSERVATION OF WILDLIFE
“So now we have become friendly with fellow women because talking to me as a woman is much easier for them. Because that woman feels if she goes to a man she will be beaten. But because for us, they know who we are and where we come from, it has become easy for us to get information. So our work has become easy,” she says.
James Isiche, Africa Director at IFAW says that while the women are just as strong as the men, going shoulder to shoulder while patrolling with them, why also bring these skills have been critical for the conservation of wildlife.
“When there are conflicts, it is the women who help cool temperatures down and that is important when we’re dealing with human-wildlife conflict situations,” says James.
But their inclusion is also because women are roughly 50 per cent of the population in Kenya, “In this landscape, you’ll see they are also 50 per cent. They’re out there collecting firewood, materials to build the houses, water and so on. They are in the landscape, so why not use them?” he says.
“They know this area just as well as the men, probably even better. So our reason to take Team Lioness is first of all to break barriers because this is a very male-led profession, but it is also a male-led community.”
He adds the women are highly educated, which is a good attribute because they can learn other skills. Technology is needed nowadays to protect wildlife. Some women came in as rangers, but had higher aspirations.
“As I speak here, there’s already a lady who we sponsored. She earned a diploma and was top in her class, we are sponsoring her to do her Bachelor’s Degree in Wildlife Management. Who knows, if I had my way in the next three years, when this (Ilangarunyoni Conservancy) becomes a fully-fledged conservancy, I would hope to see her being the manager of this conservancy.”