“Nature is unpredictable, and we never know quite what we will find, but that’s part of the magic of the experience,” says Assiat Ingabire, a female ranger and guide at Wilderness Magashi in Rwanda.
The luxury safari camp is the only one in the country lucky enough to be situated inside a national park, and it’s also the only safari camp in Rwanda with an accredited female wildlife guide on staff.
“Growing up near Akagera National Park and living within the buffer zone on the park boundary connected me to the wildlife, and this sparked my desire to become a ranger,” says Ingabire.
Graduating tourism school, she was hired as a community freelance guide in the national park that's almost unrecognisable today compared to 20 years ago when it was on the verge of being irreparably degraded. A community-led anti-poaching strategy and detailed programmes to reintroduce wildlife to the wetland have seen Akagera restored and it's now Rwanda’s last remaining refuge for savannah-adapted species.
In 2019, when the coronavirus pandemic hit, the community touring programme in the park had no funding and Ingabire's income was hit hard. In 2022, she joined Wilderness Magashi, a luxury safari retreat set along the shore of Lake Rwanyakazinga.
Her days are now spent patrolling the 6,500-hectare park, monitoring wildlife and leading tourists on safari drives and boat tours. “The first time I took my guests on a safari was incredibly exciting. Guiding them on my own and witnessing the animals alongside them was a fulfilling experience,” says Ingabire.
The park is home to the safari Big Five – and guests can expect regular sightings of antelope, lions, leopards and an ever-presence of birdlife. As popular as it is with safari-seeking travellers, the area is also a hit with hippos – Africa's most dangerous terrestrial animals – and crocodiles, which means Ingabire needs to have her wits about her at all times.
Since joining Wilderness, she has completed several guide-training programmes and in March became the first Rwandan female certified by the Field Guides Association of South Africa (FGASA) – a highly reputed association that sets the standard and level of professionalism in the wildlife-guiding industry around the world.
“Being the first female guide in Rwanda to obtain the FGASA qualification fills me with pride, and strengthens my commitment to my work,” says Ingabire who has overcome many challenges to get where she is today.
Challenging gender norms
As an expert on the abundance of wildlife that live within Akagera National Park, Ingabire is just one of a growing number of fearless women striving for biodiversity and working in environmental conservation.
Many people imagine wildlife rangers to be fearless and strong, but most do not imagine them to be women, and globally there is a major gender imbalance when it comes to rangers and wildlife guides.
It’s this inequality that led to the creation of World Female Ranger Week, a global awareness campaign spearheaded by international non-profit organisation How Many Elephants.
Set up by a women-led UK charity, the initiative began last year with World Female Ranger Day, which reached more than 50 million viewers around the world. This year, the event evolved into a week-long occasion and took place last month.
“One day simply wasn’t enough to cover the many inspirational stories of female rangers” said Holly Budge, founder of World Female Ranger Week and How Many Elephants.
“World Female Ranger Week highlights the significant gender imbalance in environmental conservation with less than 11 per cent of the global wildlife ranger workforce being female.”
The work of all wildlife rangers can be hard, but the work of a female wildlife ranger is even more difficult with many women working in the industry facing additional challenges, something that Ingabire experienced first-hand.
“In African society, women have historically been confined to domestic work and, initially, my family was unsupportive of my career choice,” she explains. “I remained determined and I’ve been able to show them all the knowledge that I’ve gained. Over time, they came to understand and became supportive.”
Female-led wildlife conservation in India, Kenya and around the globe
The team at How Many Elephants have identified about 5,500 female rangers around the world. Many of these women are based in Africa, but others are battling conservation issues in other countries including China, Sri Lanka, Venezuela and Indonesia.
In India, Purnima Devi Barman is a conservationist, biologist and the founder of the Hargila Army, a 10,000-strong team of women working together to protect the critically endangered Greater Adjutant Stork, a bird that has traditionally been thought of as a bad omen.
“Today many women join because it is a matter of prestige to be a part of the Hargila Army,” says Barman.
Raabia Hawa is a ranger in Kenya who's fighting to preserve the Tana Delta ecosystem, a certified Unesco-Ramsar site and a region critical for elephant conservation, which has long been a poaching hotspot for criminals.
Hawa founded the Ulinzi Africa Foundation, East Africa's first non-profit organisation focusing on ranger welfare and remote areas. Working under increasing threat of lawlessness and poaching, her team have made several arrests and recovered weapons. They are dedicated to turning the wildlife-rich region into a safe ecosphere for people and animals.
Getting more women into wildlife conservation – both as rangers and guides – is not just a matter of evening up the numbers.
Having more women in the industry can benefit conservation goals by bringing a greater diversity of views and skills to the realm, as men and women tend to have different environmental knowledge and priorities when it comes to conservation.
Female rangers and guides have also been shown to deploy community-based diplomacy and de-escalation in conflicts over land or wildlife management, both because of their access to women’s networks and because they are less likely than men to be socialised to think of enforcement as a go-to tool.
In Zimbabwe, the Akashinga female ranger teams are given full paramilitary training, just like their male counterparts. But their activities are less violent and more effective than other male-dominated teams working in the same region.
“These women have achieved what few armies in history have come close to – they won the hearts and minds of the local population. If given the opportunity, women will change the face of conservation forever,” says the International Anti-Poaching Foundation on its experiences with the all-women Akashinga ranger team.
Times are changing. As well as accrediting Ingabire as Rwanda’s first female ranger, FGASA also celebrated its first female safari guide of the year winner this year. Kimberlee Le Hanie, a guide working in South Africa’s Kruger National Park, is the first woman to take the title in a competition that has been running for over a decade.
How can travellers help support women working in wildlife?
With the spotlight shining on female rangers around the world, this week is a real opportunity for their stories to inspire the next generation of rangers, but preserving the world's biodiversity can't be solely down to them.
Travellers heading to wildlife-rich destinations can also play their part in supporting female wildlife guides and rangers.
The easiest way to do this is by showing respect for rangers and guides leading safaris, and being open to enjoying the experience, no matter what it may bring.
“Every day is a different day in the bush. As a guide, it can sometimes be challenging to fulfil guests’ expectations when they arrive wanting to see particular species of wildlife. I will always try to find any specific animals guests want to see, but I would love those guests to just enjoy the thrill of discovering whatever wildlife comes our way during game drives and boat trips.”
The current boom in travel fuelled by years of lockdown is good news for a tourism industry that was on the brink of collapse, but it’s also a double-edge sword as destinations that suffered without visitors during the pandemic, are now starting to see the perils that come with an abundance of visitors.
“Overtourism brings both positive and negative impacts. On the positive side, the generated income supports conservation activities. However, overtourism negatively affects wildlife,” says Ingabire.
“Mass tourism leads to environmental degradation through littering in the park. Moreover, excessive human-wildlife interactions, especially around high-profile animals like lions, leopards, and rhinos, pose risks and cause stress to the animals if done incorrectly.”
To be part of the solution rather than the problem tourists should understand the importance of adhering to information shared during safety briefings before wildlife safaris and activities. This will minimise their impact on local wildlife and simultaneously helps make rangers' roles easier, a direct way of supporting women in the industry.
When this happens, magical moments occur, according to Ingabire who says “travellers can encounter so many animals including impala, buffalo, hippo, giraffe, zebra, elephant, black rhino, and my personal favourite: banded mongooses.”