Across the world, a ranger is seen as a male dressed in his outdoor attire and being all ready to police the environment.
In the South Rupununi, however, a group of women are breaking that trend. At the same time, the 18 rangers who work with the South Rupununi Conservation Society (SRCS) are setting themselves as role models for the young cadre of ambitious women who are following in their footsteps through the latter’s participation in outdoor activities.
“Their contributions are invaluable. A major part of conservation is behaviour change – to help people to alter their actions that are negative for wildlife and the environment. If we only involve male rangers, we are missing half of the population, and we will never be able to make a sustained difference,” said Neal Miller, Programme Coordinator of the SRCS, on the subject of the female rangers.
Miller said that, in the early 2000s, when the SRCS was first created, almost all of the rangers were male. “This was a common trend throughout Guyana, and even across the world. There are many reasons why there were few female rangers, including barriers such as gender bias, gender stereotypes, fears of safety, and poor communication,” Miller said.
He said the conservation body decided to take the bull by its horns and made valiant efforts to change this trend. To undertake this mandate, the entity decided to implement several initiatives to improve gender equality. For instance, Miller said, the SRCS introduced a “childcare stipend”, which is paid to any mother with a young child or children. This money is paid to someone to take care of their children while they go to complete fieldwork.
“This stipend is given in addition to what the ranger earns in the field,” Miller explained. In addition, he said, the SRCS actively advocates for gender equality in all of its projects.
Whenever new rangers are needed from a community, he said, the SRCS would request that a gender-balanced team be selected by the village leaders. Further, he said, the SRCS ensures that females are given the same roles as men, and all responsibilities are divided equally.
In an environment where the two genders share the same space, care is taken to ensure strict lines of respect are not crossed. “In addition, SRCS also makes it clear to their rangers that they have zero tolerance on harassment of any kind. Due to this, SRCS has built a great reputation in the Rupununi, where females want to work with the organisation because they know it will be safe for them,” Miller said.
He said the women are also supported by their families in their endeavours, due to the positive reputation that the conservation body has created for itself.
For Hazelitha Bernadine, being a ranger can sometimes see the role of the female being reduced to that of the “camp cook.” Bernadine, who hails from the village of Sand Creek, said there are multiple barriers and challenges that females face.
“One of the main challenges is that there is still a stigma that exists globally, in Guyana and in the Rupununi concerning females being able to go out to conduct field work,” she said.
Bernadine, who works as a Turtle Ranger with the SRCS, said many men, “and even a lot of women still believe that females should stay home while the men go and complete conservation work in the field.”
Bernadine said that when organisations are recruiting rangers, they often disregard women, as they think women are not capable of completing the work. “This is even supported by some village leaders, who are still stuck in an old mindset,” she said.
Another female ranger, Claudia Bernard, who works as a Red Siskin Ranger, sees the role as one which keeps the young women meaningfully occupied. Bernard, who also hails from Sand Creek, said that, in the Rupununi, there is a high rate of pregnancy, with many females becoming pregnant only a few years after leaving secondary school.
She said that once a female has become a mother in the Rupununi, this can often prevent them from joining field activities, as they have no one to look after their child while they are away.
“Women who do participate in field activities are often subject to false gossip and rumours from members of their communities, which sometimes leads to them quitting due to the social stigma,” said Tabitha Rebiero, a female ranger who oversees the turtle population in the South Rupununi.
Miller said more needs to be done to ensure that the gender balance is achieved. He said more education and awareness would make a difference in achieving the anticipated balance.
“People need to understand through positive examples that conservation requires both male and female rangers,” he added.
Miller said that, as part of its mandate, the SRCS was invited to participate in World Female Ranger Week, which was held from June 23-30 last. He said it is an initiative dedicated to increasing awareness of the need for gender equality in conservation by providing a platform for female rangers to share their experiences, challenges and successes, and helping female rangers from around the world to connect with each other.
It was founded by Holly Budge of the UK, who runs the NGO “How Many Elephants” after her experiences in Africa, which led her to want to amplify the voices of female rangers.
For the female rangers of the South Rupununi, following in Budge’s footsteps maybe be a tall task, but with their grit and determination, they plan to ensure that women across the country can view them as role models and examples, and follow in their footsteps of becoming female rangers.