On International Women's Day, let's recognise the vital role that women can play in gorilla conservation efforts
In recent years, female rangers have started joining the ‘thin green line’ keeping gorillas and other endangered species such as elephants and rhinos safe from poachers. These brave women have made headlines around the world, and rightly so. Being a wildlife ranger is one of the toughest jobs there is. As well as having to trek many miles in tough conditions, it’s also extremely risky, and tragically, every year dozens of wildlife defenders are killed in the line of duty.
But they are not the only ones making a difference. So, on International Women’s Day, let’s take a moment to remember the vital role women are playing in the mission to build a better future for Africa’s gorillas as well as the people they live alongside.
Ever since the Gorilla Organization was set up more than 30 years ago, we have recognised that the importance of empowering women, and this has been reflected in our field projects both past and present. But does female empowerment have to do with saving gorillas? Well, effective conservation is not simply a matter of ensuring there are sufficient rangers patrolling the forests guarding gorillas from poachers and keeping the habitat free from deadly snares. Rather, to be effective, conservation needs to be holistic, addressing the root causes of the threats facing gorillas and other wild animals. Why do people feel the need to go into the National Parks to hunt, for example?
This is where community engagement comes in. And, what we learned long ago, is that women are often in the best position to drive change at the grassroots level. As they do in many other parts of the developing world, in Rwanda, Uganda and DR Congo (the only countries on earth where mountain gorillas can be found, and where the Gorilla Organization is working) women play a leading role in their communities. They are usually the ones taking care of household budgets or making decisions that will affect their wider communities. What’s more, women of all ages, from young children to grandmothers, are often responsible for fetching water or finding firewood. This means that they often have a special understanding of the natural resources surrounding their town, village or community.
So, since we know that the main reason people in Central Africa turn to poaching and so put gorillas’ lives at risk with their snares, is that they feel they have no other way of making a living, it makes sense that we work with women to support alternative, more sustainable livelihoods. That’s why, when we have distributed thousands of fuel-efficient stoves in order to reduce demand for illegally-sourced firewood, we handed them to women.
Similarly, we helped mothers and grandmothers from some of the poorest villages in DR Congo to go to the inspiring Barefoot College in India. Here they learned how to become solar power engineers (“Solar Sisters”) and have since used their expertise to bring clean energy to their communities, again reducing demand for firewood and charcoal while at the same time allowing children to study by electric light and so build a brighter future for themselves.
This is also why women are at the forefront of our ongoing Sustainable Farming project. Female Key Farmer Trainers have educated hundreds of people in sustainable agriculture. Where once indigenous men and women felt they had no choice but to rely on the forest home of their ancestors for their livelihoods, now they are able to support themselves outside of the precious gorilla habitat, a win for both people and great apes.
So, on International Women’s Day, let’s all recognize these unsung heroines of gorilla conservation. They may not be patrolling the forests, but, by driving change in their communities and so giving people less reason to turn to poaching or chop down the trees that gorillas rely on for their own food and shelter, they are every bit as important as rangers.