Meet the Women Working to Save Africa's Wildlife
"As a ranger, you must believe in yourself. Gather the courage and tell yourself this: 'I'm not going to die here. If a man can do this, I can do it, too.'"
These are the words of Molly Ngulube, a 23-year-old scout in the Zambian ranger team Kufadza, meaning "inspire." It's Africa's latest all-female anti-poaching team working to protect precious wildlife.
Most people imagine Africa's rangers to be fearsome and fearless, fighting on the frontlines of conservation. But few imagine them to be female.
On June 23, the first World Female Ranger Day will raise awareness and funding to support the inspiring women constituting just 11% of the global ranger workforce. The inaugural campaign, cofounded by adventurer and conservationist Holly Budge and Margot Dempsey of U.K. charity How Many Elephants, focuses on Africa.
The Black Mambas, named after Africa's deadliest snake, were the pioneers of women-only teams. The group, which was formed in 2013 when rhino poaching was rife, is based in South Africa's Kruger National Park, home to the world's largest rhino population. In April, Nkateko Mzimba received a special commendation in the prestigious IUCN WCPA International Ranger Awards — a testament to the dedication of these 36 women from local tribes who, armed with only pepper spray, patrol the park's fence lines for unwelcome intruders, checking camera traps and sweeping the bush for snares.
Nkateko joined the team in 2014, despite her mother's concerns that she'd be killed by lions or poachers. Her rural community was also unhappy: Many lived in poverty; some were themselves poachers.
The Mambas link their communities with conservation through Bush Babies classes in 13 schools, teaching 1,300 children every week. "We ask our community to change, to protect wildlife for their kids, trying our best to show we love and support them, and we give them food," says Nkateko.
To date, they've reduced bushmeat poaching by 89% and virtually eliminated the use of snares. Should they come across rhino poachers, who generally carry guns, they contact armed backup. "I don't need a gun. We're not here to fight, we're here to protect wildlife," she explains.
Women in Nkateko's community now aspire to be Black Mambas. "They support me," she adds. "I am here because of them, and I want to empower them. Women were always undermined. Now, they see the importance of us in the bush. When people offer bribes, we say no — we don't share information. Some say this is a man's job, but we've proved that we can do this."
Akashinga, meaning The Brave Ones, was Zimbabwe's first all-female anti-poaching unit, established in 2017 in Phundundu Wildlife Park in the Zambezi Valley. Spending several weeks with both the Black Mambas and Akashinga inspired Budge to launch World Female Ranger Day.
"I wanted to bring their stories to the world," she explains. "Some are AIDS orphans, some come from abusive marriages. Now, they're breadwinners and their kids go to school. But other women don't have this success, and World Female Ranger Day will bring their challenges to light."
She adds, "I felt privileged to see their work firsthand. It was like a war zone — the Akashingas all carried AK47s, with wild animals and signs of poachers around us. It made me appreciate how dangerous their work is. They're not playing rangers. This is real, very real."
World Female Ranger Day provides a forum for rangers worldwide to share advice and peer support. The charity will offer grants for improved facilities and equipment, along with annual awards. "These rangers are fantastic role models, inspiring and empowering women with a strong message that anything can be overcome with training, self-belief, determination, and resilience," says Budge.
Purity Lakara exemplifies this. She's a community wildlife ranger in Team Lioness, protecting the vast rangelands surrounding Kenya's Amboseli National Park, where elephants stroll in Kilimanjaro's shadows.
The team began in 2019 after a female Maasai elder challenged conservation non-profit IFAW to create a role for young women that went beyond cultural norms. Their duties are identical to those of male teams, but they make a significant difference to law enforcement in this patriarchal Maasai culture. Women talk to other women without the communication barriers they face with men, willingly sharing previously inaccessible intelligence with the Lionesses.
The unarmed Team Lioness receives backup from Kenya Wildlife Service rangers if they encounter dangerous poachers. When they recently experienced a terrifying buffalo stampede, however, they were on their own. "Luckily, our training prepared us, and we all survived," says Purity. "The worst thing about our work is when a buffalo or elephant kills someone."
Purity's husband looks after their three-year-old daughter when she's in the bush. "Rangers must make sacrifices and leave their families to protect wildlife," she says. "But many women want to do our job now. We must be proud of ourselves."
Molly from Kufadza shines with pride when talking about her work for Zambian non-profit Conservation Lower Zambezi, patrolling the game-rich floodplains of the mighty Zambezi River.
The organization chose to recruit all women when forming the unit last year, realizing they could influence and make change in positive ways. Nearly 80 women applied for eight posts. Many gave up or were rejected during the grueling selection process, but Molly was driven by her love for animals and her faith.
"The Bible says God created humans to care for nature," she explains. "This is my passport to God's work."
She recently spoke about Kufadza on a radio program featuring successful local women. "That day, I was that woman," she says, smiling proudly. "At home, young girls often get pregnant and drop out of school. I wanted to inspire them. Many called in during the program, and I met 14 single mothers. I said, 'This is not the end. You've got talents. Hold hands together.'"
Molly is determined to inspire more women. "On World Female Ranger Day, we're role models to ladies out there who feel underrated," she says. "We need a day to celebrate us. And they need to see us, to be inspired."