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Team Lioness: Female rangers prowl Amboseli Park hunting poachers

Eunice Mantei (left) and Purity Lakara,
Eunice Mantei (left) and Purity Lakara, Community Wildlife Rangers (CWR) at the Amboseli ecosystem. PHOTO | COURTESY 

At only 20, she is one of the youngest among a group of eight women working as Community Wildlife Rangers (CWR) at the Amboseli ecosystem.

Eunice Mantei, is one of nearly a dozen female rangers who go by the name Team Lioness; women aged between 20 to 30 years, tasked with protecting wildlife from poachers, and minimising conflict with wild animals in the densely populated community land surrounding the national park which is considered porous and susceptible to poaching.

Mantei joined the group on March 1, 2019, just a few months after completing her high school education. Sh was passionate about creating awareness on the importance of wildlife to the community.

Like other rangers in the conservancy, her routine entails a lot of field work; checking whether there's enough grazing field for the wild animals, patrolling to check whether the animals are in good health, and if not, file a report.

"We also patrol to make sure that there's no destruction of vegetation within the conservancy as well as to prevent poaching. This is achieved by interacting with the community to get information and ideas that are beneficial to both wildlife and the community," she explains.

Normally, she says, they face many challenges during patrols, especially hostility from wild animals like buffalos and elephants, as well as inadequate facilities.

Huge impact

But despite these challenges, their efforts have made a huge impact in the national conservancy campaign.

Last year, the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) announced a drastic reduction in poaching. Statistics released showed that the number of poached elephants in 2018 was 38, compared to 384 in 2012. On the other hand, the number of rhinos killed within this timeline, reduced from 30 to only four.

On its part, since 2012, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) has collaborated with the local community in Amboseli to secure 26,000 acres of important wildlife habitat that links the game reserve to Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.

This land is now part of the Kitenden Community Wildlife Conservancy which is providing livelihoods for communities through tourism.

But there's the danger of all these achievements going down the drain, as the Covid- 19 pandemic continues to bite, creating uncertainty that threatens existence of endangered species at the park. From elephants targeted for their tusks, to smaller game at risk of poaching for meat, no wildlife is safe from the spear or snare.

According to James Isiche, IFAW regional director for East Africa, though this group of 76 female rangers supported by the organisation faces the constant threat from armed poachers and sometimes, dangerous wildlife, the pandemic has made the work of Team Lioness more treacherous than ever.

Isiche says, the stakes have never been higher as pressure is on these women, and other rangers to protect wildlife, often staying in the bush for weeks on end without seeing their families.

"The disease has changed our normal working routine since we don't have the one week off every month, a fact that has forced us not to return to our homes," says Purity Amleset Lakara, a 23-year old mother of one, who also is a member of Team Lioness.

Apart from that, their patrolling routine has shifted due to fear of increased poaching.

"We are no longer interacting with the community, hence we're not getting the helpful information," explains Lakara.

Economic fallout

She also reckons that a decrease in tourism, which is the main economic activity means the locals lack income to support their livelihoods.

"This has made our interaction with these people a little bit difficult especially when it comes to dealing with poaching. The locals will instead concentrate on how to get an income, and there could be a danger of some of them getting into poaching if it means giving them that extra shilling they so desperately need," she says.

According to Isiche, the stakes have become even higher. He says, though there are no indications that poaching has spiked, there is imminent risk as a result of scaling down of anti- poaching operations caused by lack of funds due to loss of tourism revenues.

"The economic fallout on communities dependent on a thriving tourism industry has been catastrophic. Tourism revenue supports land leases, community rangers and livelihoods. In its absence, wildlife security is threatened as conservancies are likely to collapse leading to loss of space for animals," he adds.

He adds , the ability of the rangers to conduct patrols will be severely hampered with the likely consequence that poaching will rise.

Human-wildlife conflict

"These community wildlife rangers are often the first-responders to these incidences. Their presence in the community wildlife habitats is now more critical than ever."

He says, there has been increased human-wildlife conflict incidents including the loss of human life through elephant interactions.

"Between March and April, six people were killed by elephants as a result of human-wildlife conflict," he says.

Though he adds, this not attributed to the impacts of Covid-19, but is more to do with the ongoing rains and the dispersal of wildlife from the park on the one hand and growth of vegetation cover that makes it difficult for people to see wildlife in advance and steer away from their paths.

"That's why we insist that now more than ever, there is need to ensure that the rangers are conducting regular patrols not just to deter would-be poachers from putting wildlife in harm's way, but also to reduce human-wildlife contact. The contrary could only mean devastating consequences to elephants and other wildlife," he adds.