Building pride, turning a tide

A new all-women wildlife conservation unit in Kenya is set to help turn the tide of poaching, while also changing the lives of the unit members and their families.

The Segera Conservancy, a diverse 50 000 acre reserve situated in Laikipia County, Kenya, has seen significant change since Jochen Zeitz acquired it in 2005. He set out to address overgrazing and poaching by creating the Zeitz Foundation for Intercultural Ecosphere Safety in 2008. This foundation creates and supports sustainable, ecological, and socially responsible projects, using Zeitz’s ‘4C’ model — focused on Community, Commerce, Culture and Conservation. As part of its Segera rehabilitation programme, the Zeitz Foundation partnered with the Julius Baer Foundation and private donors to set up and train the first all-women conservation and anti-poaching unit in Eastern Africa. 

This 12-member team headed by newly-appointed unit commander Virginia Sinteyian (27) recently completed an intensive 6-month training course, and is now ‘on its own feet’ patrolling the reserve. It is hoped they will be just the first of many all-women ranger units.

The women traverse the reserve daily, monitoring animal numbers and movement, and checking for signs of poachers. Because they are currently not licensed to carry firearms, they take only the basics – batons, torches and mobile phones – and report any suspicious activity to security in the reserve. But should problem encounters with poachers take place, they are also trained in self defence and hand to hand combat.

Less than a year ago, they would have been too fearful to walk through the bush alone, as the reserve is well-stocked with potentially dangerous wildlife. The women – all from pastoral communities in and around the reserve, and many of them single mothers – were raised in line with traditional norms. They were accustomed to being homemakers and avoiding the dangers presented by big game and snakes. Their ranger training has changed their outlook, given them new confidence, and turned them into proud breadwinners for their families. 

“We are not afraid now,” says Sinteyian. “At first we were, especially when we had to learn to do things like sleeping in the bush – alone in the dark. That was the first time for us to do so, and in our communities it’s not accepted for women to do.”

The team traverses the reserve every day to monitor animal movement and check for signs of poachers.

Shane Sargeant, the international professional ranger tasked with training the unit, says the training exposed the women to many experiences they had never had before – and much of it was challenging. “Part of the training included sleeping overnight in the bush where signs of poachers had been seen. They could not use torches or fire so that they would remain undetected. But once while they were asleep, they were almost stepped on by buffaloes and elephants in the dark, and had to light a flare to chase the animals away,” he says.

Building all-women teams across Africa
The idea for an all-women conservation and anti-poaching unit was not a new one in Africa – South Africa pioneered it 2013 with the launch of the ‘Black Mambas’, the world’s first female, unarmed anti-poaching unit in South Africa. Damien Mander, Founder of the International Anti-Poaching Foundation, then replicated the model in Zimbabwe, creating Akashinga (‘The Brave Ones’), also embracing the community-driven conservation model. 

Empowerment was a major reason for the initiative.

Shane Sargeant

Zeitz Foundation and the Julius Baer Foundation worked with Mander and Sergeant to replicate this model in East Africa. It addressed all four of Zeitz’ C’s – bringing community and economic empowerment into conservation, while embracing local culture. For the Julius Baer Foundation, the project is fully aligned with one of its three key pillars – vocational training. It also touches on the Foundation’s two other pillars – recycling and wealth inequality – by empowering communities and addressing conservation. 

Says Sergeant: “Empowerment was a major reason for the initiative: we wanted to get women from the local communities more involved in conservation and offer an opportunity for employment and empowerment. Over 100 young women applied for positions, mostly motivated by a need to feed their children. But I was looking for people with the right characteristics; who could confidently hold their own in a traditionally male environment.” 32 were chosen for a 10-day selection period, which was designed to be beneficial even if they weren’t selected for the final unit. This training included self defence, meditation and even yoga, and revealed 12 women with the right qualities to undergo the full 6-month course. 

“We chose the right ones,” he says. “I have trained men in places like DRC and Benin, and this is among the easiest training I’ve done. The women were extremely hard working and motivated, and easily trainable. They have definitely proven themselves and have become like 12 daughters to me.”

We had to learn to do things like sleeping in the bush – alone in the dark. But we are not afraid now.

Virginia Sinteyian, Unit Commander

In addition to gaining much-needed employment, the rangers learned a broad range of new skills – including conservation and ecology theory, the principles of human rights, community collaboration, values, ethics and teamwork and criminal threats to natural resources in and around protected areas. They also underwent practical training on field survival skills, tracking, orientation, surveillance, rapid response and arrest procedures, equipment use and maintenance and first aid.  

Painful blisters, and tears of pride
The training was not always easy, and included arduous fitness exercises. Early in the course, one three-day hike across mountains and through forests and desert tested the team, whose sturdy new leather boots inflicted painful blisters.

“We were carrying three days’ worth of food in our rucksacks, we went through the desert and we lost water. So it was very hard, but finally we completed the journey,” says Sinteyian.

By the end of the training, the women were a tough, confident close-knit team. Word spread through nearby communities of this new unit of women rangers, and people came from some distance to witness the team’s passing out parade and demonstration of their new capabilities. “Virginia confidently stood up and spoke about women’s ability to lead their communities. There were tears of pride among their family and community members – and even an elderly Masai tribesman, who said he had heard of these women and come to witness their work for himself.”

I am proud doing this job. It’s very enjoyable conserving this beautiful environment.

Virginia Sinteyian, Unit Commander

Because rangers continue to live in and engage the communities around Segera, they help promote dialogue on peace, intercultural understanding and preservation. This is efficient, effective, and scalable model inspires and empowers women, giving them the opportunity to secure their own destiny whilst safeguarding biodiversity.

“It’s sometimes difficult being a working mother,” concedes Sinteyian. But she takes pride in the fact that she is now able to provide for her children, aged 8 and 3. “When they ask me ‘why are you leaving us?’ I can say ‘I’m going into the bush to earn money to buy you food, and I will come back when I can’. I am proud doing this job. It’s very enjoyable conserving this beautiful environment.”

The project has brought immediate benefits for the 12 rangers, their 60 family members and the six communities they live in. It is envisaged that the first team will soon start training a new cohort of women rangers at Segera, to expand on this successful initiative.

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