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World Female Ranger Week

This week (Friday 23rd to Friday 30th June 2023) is World Female Ranger Week, an event which draws attention to and celebrates the rise of the female ranger globally. Less than 11% of the world’s ranger workforce is currently female, but the growing interest and uptake from women enrolling in this sphere is gathering pace and proving highly successful.

Turning our attention, naturally, to Africa, there is no shortage of inspiring examples of women who are dedicating their lives to protecting wilderness and the wildlife it supports. From safari guides to anti-poaching scouts, women are proving they most definitely have a vital role to play in safeguarding their natural resources.

Many of you may have had the pleasure of the company of a female guide on safari already. From personal experience, and feedback from our clients, this is certainly proving a popular addition to the safari scene, bringing nuances to a traditionally male-dominated role.

I recently had the pleasure of the excellent company of smart and passionate learner guide Savanna Vowles in Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe. It is encouraging to see women breaking through into guiding in this country which is famed for creating some of the best guides in Africa. Before meeting Savanna, I’d previously spent a couple of days with Professional Guide and Chief Examiner and Head of Education for the Zimbabwe Professional Guides Association, Dave Carson. Since taking on this role, Dave has been steering the profession towards more inclusivity: “It is very important on many levels, but I think mostly as we need diversity amongst Zim Guides. It does not have to be a male dominated profession.” With the rigorous training and qualification process in Zimbabwe, the key is exposing learner female guides to the experience they need to then gain employment with camps and progress through their apprentice. Dave says: “We now have a few female guides working in the camps around Zimbabwe, which is good because now they are part of the system and will be trained up to be Pro Guides.” Dave is currently looking at programs to offer extra training and experience to learner female guides in Zimbabwe to increase their employment opportunities.

Meanwhile, owner of the Maun based African Guide Academy (formerly the Okavango Guiding School, the first independent guiding school accredited to both the Botswana Training Authority and Field Guide Association of Southern Africa) Grant Reed has noticed both a large increase in the number of women in Botswana looking to become involved in guiding, as well as the number of companies promoting female guides:

“I think the industry has evolved massively since the 80s when people expected a rugged, tanned, sleeveless game ranger with a footlong knife on his belt to meet them at the airstrip and guide them through the wilderness. There are still some tourists who feel safer on foot with a male guide because of the perception of men being better at shooting. However, we see consistently on the shooting range that women outshoot their male counterparts because they don’t try to dominate the weapon. They listen, practise and develop the correct technique. As the saying goes, ‘slow is smooth and smooth is fast’.” Grant continues to note that “women are naturally empathetic and great communicators. Being able to read your guests and pick up on small cues that allow you to adapt your activity and message accordingly is a vital skill. Furthermore, it is irrelevant how much information you have stored in your brain. If you are unable to bring this knowledge across in an informative and entertaining manner it is worthless”.

The African Guide Academy has been working with Chobe Game Lodge for a number of years now. The lodge has been hiring female guides since 2004 when Florence Kagiso joined the team. Many more followed in Florence’s trail blazing footsteps to the point that Africa’s first all-female guide team was formed. ‘The Chobe Angels’, as they are affectionately known in the industry, now number 19 female guides who have dedicated their lives to wildlife conservation, ably guiding guests by electric boat and vehicle.

Moving to East Africa and one camp has taken things a step further. Dunia Camp in the central Serengeti is the only camp in Africa to be run entirely by women. From chefs to housekeeping, from management to guiding, this inspirational team are a testament to what women can achieve when given the opportunity.

The term ‘ranger’ has a broad remit and does not simply refer to safari guides, but extends to the tough and vital work of anti-poaching teams. Conservation organisations are recognising the value that women can bring to help combat poaching in not only increasing the availability of potential recruits, but also bringing on board different qualities that are effective in human-wildlife conflict mitigation. Rather than trying to emulate the role of their male counterparts, who are generally armed and frequently involved in head on anti-poaching conflict, women can bring an additional skillset to the ranger role, often proving extremely effective in easing local tensions and forming relationships with local communities – critical to delivering education and obtaining trust and community buy in to conservation and anti-poaching measures.

Many women living in areas bordering protected areas have struggled with adversity, including poverty and marginalisation and becoming a ranger has given significant empowerment: education, income, respect from their communities and the reward of being able to make a difference. This empowerment creates passionate and committed ambassadors for wildlife conservation and inspirational role models for young girls.

The world’s first all-female anti-poaching unit formed 10 years ago in South Africa. The formidably named Black Mambas are a group of 36 ground-breaking African women patrolling the Balule Nature Reserve which borders the Greater Kruger National Park with farming communities on the other side. The Kruger area is home to the largest population of rhino worldwide and poaching attacks are rife. The Black Mambas provide both presence on the ground as well as important work in their communities. Parallel to their anti-poaching patrol work is the Bush Babies Environmental Education Programme which strives to educate local children about conservation.

Meanwhile in Kenya, Team Lioness is proving a highly successful addition to the Olgulului Community Wildlife Rangers unit. Recognising the deep connection that Maasai women in Kenya have to their land and to their communities, the unit has employed eight female rangers to help protect traditional community land surrounding Amboseli National Park. They are the first women in their families’ history to secure employment.

Aligning strongly with its mission of conservation and empowering women, the Great Plains Foundation (Great Plains Conservation’s charitable arm) launched a female ranger training program in 2022. The inaugural unit began in Botswana and the program’s aim is to roll out training and activation of units in Zimbabwe also. The group of seven ladies will then take on leadership roles for future training intakes. Women within these units are trained to become effective natural resource monitors, patrolling sensitive areas, gathering information such as wildlife data mapping and acting as early detection forces against illegal wildlife crime.

Dereck Joubert, co-founder and CEO of Great Plains Conservation, explains the importance of female rangers: “This initiative holds equally tremendous significance for gender equality and conservation, the challenging of gender norms, reducing human-wildlife conflict, and building the next generation of local change-agents prepared to conserve African wildlife and wild landscapes. Women want to work in the conservation front line sector and we have been overwhelmed by applications, a hundred fold more than the positions we advertised. Our commitment is to these women, these positions and to saving the wildlife we are so passionate about protecting.”

The threat to Africa’s wildlife from habitat loss, poaching and human-wildlife conflict is without doubt one of the biggest challenges of our time; we need all the eyes and ears possible on the ground, spreading the word in communities. Furthermore, as we’re all aware, conservation has to begin with support from the local communities, and empowering women in those communities is an essential step in creating long term ambassadors for Africa’s wildlife. This determined, passionate and dedicated sisterhood of rangers is a shining beacon of hope in the fight for wildlife conservation in Africa, and across the globe.

Photo credits: Chobe Game Lodge, Asilia Africa, Great Plains Foundation
Video credits: Great Plains Foundation