In the vast African wilderness, where the rhythms of nature echo through savannas, forests and wetlands, remarkable women stand as guardians and providers. From smallholder farmers to leaders of conservation movements, their tireless efforts, unwavering commitment and groundbreaking work shape the future of conservation.

According to the African Wildlife Foundation’s Fiesta Warinwa, “African women are the natural custodians of the environment. They pay the price when it comes to the social and economic effects of factors associated with environment and conservation.”

Women account for 70% of smallholder farms in Africa and provide more than half of all nutrition to people on the continent. As a result, women are more directly affected by the degradation of the environment than men. Much of the livelihood of African women relies upon the stability of the environment around them, and its decline has impacted women disproportionally to men.

From Cameroon to South Africa and across generational divides, let us introduce you to some of the extraordinary women in African conservation.

Paula Kahumbu: A Voice for Elephants in Kenya

Paula Kahumbu is a wildlife conservationist and the chief executive officer of WildlifeDirect. She is best known as a campaigner for elephants and wildlife, spearheading the Hands Off Our Elephants Campaign, launched in 2014 with Kenyan First Lady Margaret Kenyatta.

In 2022, Kahumbu was appointed as the first National Geographic Explorer as a board of trustees member at the National Geographic Society. Her tireless work transcends ivory poaching statistics; it delves into the intricate web of ecosystems where elephants roam.

Paula Kahumbu surrounded by elephants in Maasai Mara by © Charlie Hamilton James, Courtesy of Kahumbu's Facebook

Paula Kahumbu surrounded by elephants in Maasai Mara by © Charlie Hamilton James, Courtesy of Kahumbu’s Facebook

Recognizing the importance of early childhood conservation education, Kahumbu is also an accomplished children’s book author, co-authoring global bestseller Owen and Mzee: The True Story of a Remarkable Friendship, based on the unlikely friendship of a hippopotamus and an Aldabra giant tortoise Owen and Mzee.

Cécile Ndjebet: Forests, Rights and the Wangari Maathai Legacy

Cécile Ndjebet’s roots run deep into Cameroonian soil. An environmental activist and social forester, she champions women’s rights to land and forests. Her accolades include receiving the prestigious Wangari Maathai Award in 2022, honoring her tireless efforts.

Ndjebet’s work transcends tree planting—it empowers communities, ensuring that forests thrive alongside livelihoods. Her legacy intertwines with the work and legacy of Wangari Maathai, nurturing a greener, more equitable Africa.

Alice Ruhweza: Bridging Conservation and Development

Alice Ruhweza’s journey spans continents, fueled by a passion for conservation and development. With extensive experience in Africa and globally, she has forged successful partnerships with international institutions. Currently serving as the Africa Region Director for WWF, Ruhweza oversees a regional program spanning 10 countries and 400 staff members and is spearheading the design of a new conservation framework that unites conservation efforts at national, transboundary and global levels.

Alice Ruhweza, WWF Africa

Alice Ruhweza, Courtesy of @wwf_kenya

Ruhweza’s influence extends beyond organizational boundaries. She sits on the Board of The Global Ever-Greening Alliance and contributes to the steering committee of the Future Earth Water-Food-Energy Nexus working group. Ruhweza’s legacy lies in bridging cultures and disciplines, weaving a tapestry where conservation and development intersect.

Monique Ntumngia: Empowering Communities Through Green Advocacy

Monique Ntumngia’s heart beats for justice. As a human rights advocate and social forester, she leads the charge for change. Ntumngia presides over the Green Girls NGO, empowering young women to embrace environmental stewardship. Simultaneously, she fuels innovation as the CEO and Founder of Monafrik Energy. Her Cameroonian roots ground her vision—a vision that transcends energy access, weaving a fabric of resilience and empowerment.

Thandiwe Mweetwa: Roaring for Lion Conservation in Zambia

Thandiwe Mweetwa’s impact is found in Zambia’s grasslands. A wildlife biologist and community educator, she is dedicated to lion conservation. As a senior ecologist for the Zambian Carnivore Programme, Mweetwa unravels the mysteries of lion behavior. Her community engagement transcends textbooks, empowering local voices to safeguard these apex predators. Mweetwa’s passion ignites a flame—a flame that burns for lions, for Africa and for a harmonious coexistence.

Lucy Kemp: Ground-Hornbill Guardian, South Africa

Lucy Kemp grew up to the rhythm of ground hornbills, as her parents, Alan and Meg Kemp, did much of the early research on the species in the Kruger National Park. As a tireless advocate for these majestic birds, she stands at the forefront of their conservation. Kemp’s sanctuary is the African bush, where she deciphers their calls, tracks their movements, and safeguards their habitats. Her work extends beyond research—she educates communities, fostering a love for these iconic birds.

ground hornbill in flight, endangered species

On her website, Kemp says, “My main interest is how to take sound scientific evidence and use that to formulate on-the-ground conservation action that considers socio-economic realities, cultural sensitivities and conservation biology. I have been privileged to work on conservation projects in both Namibia and South Africa: black rhino, wild dog, cheetah, high-value plant species, community-based natural resource management and food security for communities living in national parks.

My greatest need is to be in wild places and so I see it as my duty to do all I can to help keep wild places wild.”

Aaniyah Martin: Coastal Stewardship and Community Building

As the founder and director of The Beach Co-op, Aaniyah Martin rallies communities to care for our marine environment. Her non-profit organization unites beach lovers, transforming cleanup efforts into a movement. Martin’s vision extends to the Women for the Environment in Africa leadership program, where she nurtures a sisterhood of changemakers. Dive into her world at Women for the Environment.

Zanzibari women clean up their beaches

Zanzibari women clean up their beaches

Petronel Nieuwoudt: Rhino Warriors Unite

Petronel Nieuwoudt’s heart beats for rhinos. She battles for their survival as the founder and chief executive of Care For Wild Rhino Sanctuary in South Africa’s eastern Mpumalanga province. Care for Wild envisions a future where viable, free-ranging populations of black and white rhinos thrive within protected, vibrant ecosystems.

Petronel Nieuwoudt, International Women’s Day is an opportunity to recognize and appreciate their invaluable efforts and the inspiration they ignite. From rangers to caregivers, mounted unit to K-9 unit, accounting to administration, media to fundraising, all the way to our CEO and Founder. Thank you to the women of the Care for Wild team and all over the world who dedicate themselves to the conservation and protection of wildlife.

Petronel Nieuwoudt (middle). “International Women’s Day is an opportunity to recognize and appreciate their invaluable efforts and the inspiration they ignite. From rangers to caregivers, mounted unit to K-9 unit, accounting to administration, media to fundraising, all the way to our CEO and Founder. Thank you to the women of the Care for Wild team and all over the world who dedicate themselves to the conservation and protection of wildlife.” Courtesy of @careforwild

Care for Wild Rhino Sanctuary focuses on rescue, rehabilitation and rewilding, caring for orphaned rhinos, healing their wounds and preparing them for reintroduction into the wild. Nieuwoudt’s legacy lies in each rhino’s triumphant return to its natural habitat. Join her cause and witness rhino resilience.

Jana Meyer: Wings of Hope in Anti-Poaching Skies

Jana Meyer’s helicopters slice through the African sky, carrying hope. As the owner of Hope for Wildlife Helicopter, she revolutionizes conservation efforts. Meyer’s rotor blades hum during anti-poaching missions, darting rhinos for dehorning and tracking wildlife. Her aerial vigilance safeguards Africa’s treasures, ensuring poachers meet their match. Buckle up and soar with Meyer!

Jana Meyer helicopter rhino

Jana Meyer, Courtesy of Linkedin

Damaeris Seleina Parsitau: Breaking Silence, Igniting Change

Damaeris Seleina Parsitau’s voice echoes across Maasai lands. A visiting scholar at the Brookings Institution, she defies tradition. As the first Maasai woman with a Ph.D., Parsitau shattered silence. The elders bestowed upon her an “honorary man” title, granting her the power to speak. Now, through her organization, Let Maasai Girls Learn, she advocates for education. Her legacy? Empowered voices rising from the savanna.

The Crucial Role of Women in African Conservation

Across Africa and through generations, women have been instrumental in driving conservation efforts. Those efforts have outsized benefits, too, as women are often stewards of biodiversity, public health and sustainable community development.

Women also play an essential role in mitigating climate change. A Brookings Institution article highlights that girls’ education has several important impacts: 

  • Focusing on girls’ and women’s education and health empowers them and helps stabilize population growth.
  • Investing in girls’ education builds female leadership in society, and women leaders are “incredibly effective in conservation and protection efforts, and are more likely to pursue more sustainable futures for their communities.”
  • Women’s and girls’ education is important for developing skills for a green economy.

As Damaris Parsitau of Friends of Serengeti explains,

“Girls from all over the world hold the key to our most pressing challenges, including climate change and environmental sustainability. Studies suggest girls’ education significantly and positively impacts families and communities. Investing in girls’ education is imperative.”

Madagascar local women

Photographed by Nat Hab Expedition Leader © Richard de Gouveia in Madagascar

In short, for the significant threats to the Serengeti from climate change and diminished human welfare from population growth, it is women who can have the greatest impact.

Their unique perspectives and deep understanding of local ecosystems have enabled them to lead initiatives that balance ecological integrity with community needs. Women conservationists often work at the grassroots level, engaging with local communities to promote sustainable practices and protect natural resources. They understand the intricate connections between the environment, cultural traditions and economic stability, which is crucial for creating long-lasting conservation solutions.

By empowering women and recognizing their contributions, conservation programs can harness a powerful force for environmental stewardship.

Empowering Women in Conservation: Strategies and Success Stories

The challenges faced by women in conservation are multifaceted. Despite their significant contributions, they often encounter barriers such as limited access to education, resources, and decision-making platforms. Gender biases and societal norms can also hinder their participation and leadership in conservation.

Thankfully, many women have overcome these obstacles through resilience and determination, becoming role models and advocates for change. Their success stories inspire other women to pursue careers in conservation, leading to a more diverse and inclusive approach to environmental management.

Odette Uwineza (porter), Jolie Mukiza (guide) and Jacqueline Uwamahoro (porter) on a gorilla trek in Rwanda.

Odette Uwineza (porter), Jolie Mukiza (guide) and Jacqueline Uwamahoro (porter) on a gorilla trek in Rwanda © Lavanya Sunkara

Collaboration is key to the success of conservation efforts led by women in Africa. Women can amplify their impact and bring about meaningful change by working with governments, NGOs, and international organizations. These partnerships provide opportunities for knowledge exchange, capacity building, and the development of innovative strategies to address conservation challenges.

Women’s involvement in conservation also promotes gender equality and helps to break down stereotypes, demonstrating that women are equally capable of leading and transforming the field of environmental conservation. Through collective action, women are shaping a sustainable future for Africa’s precious natural heritage.

> Read: Meet the Pioneering Women Changing the Face of the African Safari Industry

These women embody the spirit of African conservation. Their stories resonate beyond borders, inspiring and educating generations to protect our shared heritage. As we celebrate their achievements, let us remember that gender knows no bounds when it comes to safeguarding our planet. Together, we raise our binoculars to honor these unsung heroines. 🌿🔭🌍

Did you know that Nat Hab has a series of women-only (and women-led) trips called Women in the Wild? These adventures are led by top women Expedition Leaders and offer a chance to explore with local women who join as regional guides and special guests. The itineraries have a special focus on the contributions of women in the destinations—as pioneers, Indigenous leaders, rangers, researchers, conservationists, explorers, entrepreneurs, educators and more.