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Team Lioness: Maasai women defy gender norms and find they have an advantage as anti-poaching rangers

Meet the female rangers fighting poachers
Meet the female rangers fighting poachers 03:28

Risa, Kenya — Kenya's Amboseli National Park is home to an abundance of wildlife. It's one of the best places in Africa to see herds of elephants up close. The area is also home to the Maasai people, one of the few African tribes to have retained its customs.

The Maasai have a strict patriarchal society — men hold the power to make decisions and they run the community. But a group of young Maasai women are turning their culture's long-held gender stereotypes upside down.

CBS News correspondent Debora Patta visited a Maasai village recently and was there as the day broke, watching as the men of the village tended to the cattle. The women's job is to milk them. Everyone in Maasai society knows their place.

But the routine has been disrupted: Team Lioness has arrived. The women anti-poaching rangers didn't come to the village on official business that morning. They came bearing gifts. One of their colleagues, Ruth Sikeita, had just had a baby, and the Lionesses already had big plans for little newborn Beatrice.

"One day, she will be a ranger," the women agreed with a laugh.

As Purity Lakara, 24, cuddled baby Beatrice, she knew that if she hadn't become a ranger, motherhood was all her future would have held.    

"Women are only allowed to stay at home, looking after their kids and giving birth," Lakara lamented of her own culture's norms, before quickly dismissing them outright: "We are not meant to stay just at home. No. We are educated to come and change the world. So that's what we are doing right now."

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Together with her seven teammates, she was selected to join Kenya's first all-female anti-poaching squad, set up by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). But as IFAW's East Africa Director James Isiche explained to CBS News, the project was a tough pitch to the local elders.

"This community, the Maasai community, is a very patriarchal community where the men have all the say," he told Patta. "In fact, we faced quite an uphill task convincing the men to allow us to recruit Team Lioness."

Now the trail-blazing women serve as the first line of defense against poaching. Their work is physically grueling. Patrolling the Maasai community land that surrounds the Amboseli National Park, they often walk 12 miles in a day.  

Kenya Women Wildlife Rangers
Female wildlife ranger Purity Amleset, 24, left, speaks to a Maasai woman near the Amboseli National Park, in Kenya, July 31, 2020. On the sweeping plains at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro a group of female wildlife rangers known as "Team Lioness" is making history, defying patriarchal norms by guarding wildlife and patrolling against poachers. Joe Mwihia/AP

But being female gives them an advantage; Maasai women might be invisible to their men, but they hear everything that's going on in their community — including who is illegally killing animals for bushmeat.  

And many tipsters feel far more comfortable talking to Team Lioness than they would to their male counterparts. 

"It's just a secret between you and the person who feeds you with the information," explains Lakara of the intel-gathering process that led to a recent bust. "Then we put an ambush… we caught him without him knowing that we are aware of what he is doing."

Through the tip-offs, the Lionesses have helped to reduce poaching and the retaliatory killing of animals in their area by 80% since they first went on patrol in 2019.

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And while men in their community used to mock them, Lakara said things have changed over the last couple years, and nobody is laughing now.

"The respect that they used to give to men, they are now giving us that respect," she told Patta. "Even when there's meetings in the community, if I want to talk, they give me that chance because they respect me. I am a Ranger, yeah!"

Team Lioness has been so successful that there are plans to recruit more women from the Maasai community, and to roll out similar anti-poaching squads elsewhere.  

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