A Kenyan Woman in Conservation

by ZSL on

To mark International Women's Day, ZSL's Clarine Kigoli tells us about her role working in Kenya. 

Clarine with the Grevy’s Zebra Trust scouts on training patrol
Clarine with the Grevy’s Zebra Trust scouts on training patrol

With a background in computer science, I often wonder how I ended up working in conservation with the Zoological Society of London (ZSL); it is an interesting puzzle, even to me. I was initially employed to manage camera-trap data entry for biodiversity monitoring in the coastal forests of Kenya in 2015. I remember spending 10 days on the Kenyan coast learning how to deploy camera-traps effectively, before we placed a grid of cameras in the dense (and very spiky) Cynometra forests of the Arabuko-Sokoke Forest. This was something I had never experienced before, and in a very short space of time, a passion for working in conservation had been ignited in me.  

Since then, I’ve acquired various skills that enable me to support ZSL’s local partner NGOs in Kenya. My main role involves training these partners on a Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool (SMART) and providing detailed and regular support to these organisations as they try to implement SMART at their site. SMART is a software for measuring, evaluating and improving the effectiveness of site-based conservation, wildlife law enforcement and ecological monitoring. ZSL focus on training these partners in such tools to improve their capacity and effectiveness in field conservation and enable them to demonstrate their achievements.

This week, I am up in the wild north of Kenya, in Samburu, an area famed for its rich culture and nomadic warriors dressed in bright traditional clothing carrying spears. I am here assisting our partner NGO, the Grevy’s Zebra Trust (GZT), which is working to conserve a species with only 2,000 individuals remaining in the world. 

Clarine demonstrating how SMART works
Clarine demonstrating how SMART works

The GZT’s scouts are Samburu warriors and grew up tending their family livestock in a nomadic lifestyle. The warriors have been hardened by the dangers of encountering the wild animals that surround them like the buffaloes, elephants, lions and crocodiles. They have traditionally faced attacks from neighbouring tribes with whom they share the landscape.

“Hamjamboni”, I greet them in Swahili, but my words are met with a steely silence. Despite Swahili and English being the two official languages of Kenya, they speak neither. You cannot fail to notice how they are surprised to see me, a woman, who in their culture ought to be at home looking after the “Manyatta”, i.e. the homestead.

One of the GZT team acts as a translator, helping me to deliver the SMART training course to the warriors. SMART enables these warriors to use technology such as handheld GPS devices to collect data on wildlife sightings and signs of illegal activity. The data collection app is set up to allow the warriors to easily navigate graphic icons for each observation. I demonstrate how the monitoring tool works, the warriors following every detail with keenness and precision. When I finish, the warriors talk excitedly in Samburu language as they continue to familiarize themselves with the devices in their hands. I look around the group and they are all smiling, having mastered a new skill. Words are not enough to explain the satisfaction this brings to me, the ability to teach something novel to these scouts. 

To put their newly acquired skills into practice, I join the warriors on several patrols, each scout keenly recording their observations. As we walk through the dense vegetation of Westgate Conservancy, the sun is now unforgiving. One of the scouts points out a Grevy’s zebra, the first I’ve seen. The zebra stands staring at us; its large ears and narrow stripes make it striking to look at and distinguish it from the more abundant Plain’s zebras that you find across Kenya. 

Scouts recording Grevy’s zebra sightings on their handheld data device
Scouts recording Grevy’s zebra sightings on their handheld data device

After several hours on patrol, the scouts rest beside a hill in the shade. Through the translator, I hear a couple of stories from the scouts on how conservation has really changed their lives and their expectations for the future too. It is clear that they are passionate about their jobs and the Grevy’s zebra in particular. They talk of their pride in being able to send their children to school, something which their parents could not afford. Despite that lack of formal education, here they are learning how to use an electronic data device to collect information in the field.  

That evening, I am lying in bed thinking through the day’s training when I hear an elephant walking around my tent. It’s so close that I worry my tent will be carried away. I stop breathing for fear I will make too much noise. Finally, I gain courage and relax as the elephant continues to browse on the Acacia trees around the camp. I pinch myself, how did this girl from Western Kenya find herself in Samburu, doing a job that she truly loves? 

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