Women in the Wild
The fascination people have with big cats dates back to prehistoric times. A Neolithic age tiger carving found in the Helan Mountains of China, a Paleolithic era charcoal drawing of a group of lions drawn on the Chauvet Cave in Europe, a 1,700-year-old cave painting of a jaguar in Belize, and snow leopard petroglyphs found in Upper Tibet from the Iron age – there are countless examples of our association with these large felines. Oftentimes in these references, cats, big and small, are associated with female figures and deities, indicating power, fearlessness, and strength.
Today, the women dedicating their lives to save the big cats draw accurate parallels. We are featuring some of these women below.
United for Nature
“It is daunting to scale steep and cold mountains of the Himalayas to look for the snow leopard, but it is equally difficult to walk into dzumsa and speak about conservation,” Laksheden Theengh, Landscape Coordinator, Khangchendzonga Landscape, WWF India, started with a laugh.
As a part of the snow leopard team in Sikkim, Lak works closely with the community. Where all big cats, including snow leopards, face many threats and conflict with people is one of the leading causes of their decline, there is simply no win in big cat conservation if people do not see the value of and benefit from the conservation efforts.
“I remember walking into a small, thatched hut, dimly lit, with men, mostly over 50, sitting in a circle. I was nervous, fumbling with my posters, and started speaking to them about nature conservation. It was the first time they heard about these issues. They listened to what I had to say and were also intrigued that a woman could do nature conservation work. It was new to them.”
“Over the years, we have tried many interventions to reduce snow leopard predation on livestock. In doing so, being a woman makes it easier to connect with the local woman and include them in our work to address the conflict. These women would be left behind if only male team members were communicating about our projects.”
Within WWF’s Living with Big Cat’s initiative, implemented in Sikkim as well as six other priority landscapes in Asia, Africa, and South America, women from communities in the big cat landscapes are important stakeholders. The WWF team is working to co-design projects with communities, like those in Lachen, through identifying champions within the community, while considering social dynamics and differences as well power imbalances.
“Oftentimes, I am the only woman in the room, and it is hard to get my voice through.”
As an African woman who is an expert in lion conservation, Moreangels Mbizah, Founder and Executive Director, Wildlife Conservation Action, is often in the minority. But like many others, it does not stop her.
“I started my career working on African wild dogs. However, it was not long after that I was drawn towards the majestic lions,” added Moreangels.
With the childhood dream of working with people, Moreangels was drawn to understanding the interaction of communities and lions. She eventually founded Wildlife Conservation Action in 2018 to build the capacity of local communities to protect and coexist with wildlife, particularly lions, while improving their livelihoods.
“Being a woman, I have faced challenges in being accepted in the conservation circles – from colleagues, local authorities, and communities as well. When I am in a room full of experts, people usually do not expect a woman to make a significant contribution to conversations,” Moreangels shares.
According to her, the gender-driven biases also extend to securing funding for her work. But despite the challenges, she is making considerable contributions toward addressing human-lion conflict in Nyaminyami district, Zimbabwe. Some of the work she has led include training Community Guardians or “Batabilili’ (which means “The Protectors” in the Tonga language) to respond to predation incidents, reinforcing and improving kraals, and installing predation-proof mobile bomas. These interventions are proving to be useful in Nyaminyami and the incidents of conflict are decreasing, from an average of 17 incidences a month in 2021 to 12 incidences a month in 2022.
Moreangels’ work demonstrates that oftentimes, it's not the loudest voice in the room that is the strongest, but the one that brings a new perspective. This is why the leadership of women like her is vital to conserve big cats.
Fabiola la Rosa, Wildlife Programme Officer, WWF Peru, spends her days saving the big cat of the Amazons, the jaguar king.
“What intrigued me about jaguars was the secrets they hold - the secrets of Amazon.”
Fabiola says that working with jaguars pushed her to try new approaches to conservation.
“As researchers, we study and know the biological aspects of these animals, but we often lack social and cultural knowledge about them. I had the opportunity to connect these different components and understand how to work with people. I collected data on these big cats, but I started thinking about how this information connects with people and improves their lives. Researchers come and go, but how do you engage people, who belong to this land, for a real change?”
Today, Fabiola is implementing several initiatives that involve women in farming communities. She says that although many women have negative perceptions about jaguars due to economic losses, it is still important to listen to them with an open mind and come back with recommendations. During these consultations, the team is also identifying four to five women who can help monitor jaguars’ interactions in the area.
“The people will always interact with jaguars, because they live close to the forest and our work involves how well we can equip them, strengthening their knowledge and conditions, so that these interactions are within the tolerable level”.
Fabiola and her team are training locals to identify various species by installing camera traps and studying signs so that the community can evaluate interactions with wildlife even when the team is not around. In her opinion, recognizing the voices of locals and co-visioning the conservation efforts will ensure there are tolerable interactions with big cats.
WWF’s Living with Big Cats Initiative seeks to do just this; supporting the people who are champions for these incredible animals, specifically acknowledging the unique role that women play in the conservation of these big cats. The parallels are clear; big cats hold their ecosystems together the same way that women hold societies together. We cannot hope to ensure the wellbeing of people and big cats unless we leverage the power, fearlessness, and strength inherent across both the cats and the women who conserve them.