Women as Saviors of the Serengeti

Written by Meyasi Mollel.
Images © Alison M Jones, unless otherwise noted

NWNL Director Alison Jones met Tanzania’s Meyasi Meshilieck a year ago in Kenya, via NWNL’s partner Serengeti Watch co-directors Boyd Norton and Dave Blanton. In her NWNL Interview with Meyasi, they discussed his views as a science educator in Tanzania and his passion for conservation. As a result, on April 23, 2019, Alison and Meyasi will deliver a joint presentation on the Mara River Basin and the Serengeti in NYC at 6 pm.  (Contact NWNL for Details.)  Meyasi is Director of Serengeti Preservation Foundation, a nonprofit  developing community conservation programs to protect the Serengeti ecosystem.

Aerial of low flows of Mara River

East Africa’s Mara River Basin

The Mara River Basin is an international river basin shared by Kenya and Tanzania.  The watershed is approximately 5,308 square miles [13,750 sq. km.], with roughly 65% in Kenya and 35% in Tanzania. In Kenya, the Mara River runs from the Mau Forest downstream through the Maasai Mara Game Reserve, and in Tanzania it continues through the Serengeti National Park to Lake Victoria.  Both Mara River Basin protected parks hold great weight for global conservation consideration and economic prominence, especially since the Mara River terminus is Lake Victoria, the birthplace of the River Nile.

Water shortages, poor water quality and environmental degradation are life-threatening concerns facing the local communities and other stakeholders in the Mara River Basin — specifically women, the integral part of those communities. Unfortunately, these basic issues limit attempts to alleviate poverty.  There is a great need to improve healthcare, food security, and economic development; and simultaneously, great need to protect the watershed’s natural resources.

Mara Conservancy, sunset over small tributary to Mara River

Threats in Serengeti National Park 

In the Serengeti portion of the Mara River Basin, sustainability depends on conservation.  Its economic prominence depends on the surrounding population of people, wise use of water, a better land-use plan and afforestation of the land.  As well, benefits between human and wildlife must be balanced. The Serengeti Ecosystem – of which 35% is within the Mara River Basin – contains a dynamic mix of wildlife, habitat and human communities. Conservation and human welfare are inextricably linked – and women have a decisive role in meeting the great challenges of both.

Two existential threats face both people and wildlife in the Serengeti ecosystem:

  • human population growth and
  • climate change.

Regarding both issues, it is the women who have the greatest role to play.

A community well in Tanzania  (Photo by Meyasi Mollel)

Tanzania’s population is projected to double by mid-century – and quadruple fifty years later! Tanzania has one of the world’s highest adolescent pregnancy rates, where one in six girls between 15 and 19 become pregnant. The country also has one of the highest child-marriage rates, where 37% of girls marry before age 18. Population growth around the Serengeti National Park is the highest in Tanzania.

Educating Women and Girls to Save the Serengeti

A significant fertility decline can be achieved if women are empowered educationally, economically, socially and politically. Educating girls has a proven effect on reducing family size. When girls stay in school, they have a reduced risk of becoming pregnant.

As a recent Brookings Institute study notes:

  • Focusing on girls’ and women’s education and health empowers them and helps stabilize population growth.
  • Investing in girls’ education builds female leadership in a society -and prepares them to become active in conservation efforts.
Women from Tanzania’s Serengeti Region (Photo by Meyasi Mollel)

Climate Change Affects the Mara River Basin  

Tanzania is acutely vulnerable to climate change. Annual precipitation has decreased significantly across the country from 1960 to the present.  Seasonal rainfall patterns have already changed.

Women can also have a key role in this issue. The UN Sustainable Development Goals state that we can combat climate change by “advocating for gender equality and women’s empowerment in mitigating and adapting to climate change.”

Villager collecting water from a leaking well in Mara River Basin

The Brookings Institute states, “Studies show that female leaders are incredibly effective in conservation; and they are more likely to pursue more sustainable futures for their communities.”

Climate change affects water and forests, both of which impact and are impacted by women. Water security, a critical issue for Serengeti communities, is being threatened. The use of trees cut for firewood has caused large-scale deforestation.

The UN Sustainable Development Goals state:

  • Women play a critical role as stewards of the land, comprising much of the agricultural labour force in developing countries. They may be primary collectors of resources such as wood for fuel, as well as wild foods and herbs for medicines.
  • The most vulnerable people are most at risk from climate change, including many poor women. For them, the impacts are already a daily reality. Many spend increasingly long hours hunting for food, fuel and water, or struggling to grow crops. When disasters strike, women are far more likely to perish.
  • Women need the capacity to protect themselves and to participate in decisions with profound implications for people and the planet.
Tanzanian villagers outside Serengeti National Park (Photo by Meyasi Mollel)

Serengeti Preservation Foundation [SPF] Helps Women

SPF is working with women’s groups to develop income-producing enterprises. This is done by granting micro-loans; finding markets for artisans’ products; and giving economic support to women’s social groups.

Bee-keeping is one such enterprise SPF is helping set up for women.  SPF provides women with beehives to install in sensitive areas, such as those near water sources and protected forests. The women can harvest the honey and sell it, providing an additional source of income. Their bee-keeping will also directly protect the environments where their beehives are installed. Beehives are also being used as “fences” to help prevent incursions of wildlife into local communities.

SPF Supports Girls’ Education 

SPF is identifying girls who have the interest and aptitude for study and leadership. By providing scholarships, we will be expanding this program to include as many girls as possible. Girls in our current school programs are already acquiring enhanced education and mentoring to become change-makers in their communities. We can see that keeping girls in school reduces early pregnancy and lowers birth rates. They are becoming new voices for change – affecting income, family size, values, and decision-making.

Primary school choir rehearsing above the Mara River

The future of the Mara River Basin is based on trusting and empowering women and girls previously marginalized in communities around the Serengeti.  It is time to build on the big role they play on a daily basis in taking care of their families.

I have often said, “If a woman can raise a family, she can raise a nation, she can take care of the environment.” The time is now to empower and involve women in the conservation movement of Mother Nature.

On the northern Serengeti Plains

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