Generational Female Mentorship in Conservation Bolsters MEP’s Wildlife Protection Efforts

As a woman working in the conservation space now, Mara Elephant Project Research Assistant Sylvia Nyarangi Ondabu says she feels blessed daily given the challenge of breaking into a historically male dominated field. “Being a woman in this field, first of all, it’s not easy to get employment in this kind of industry, not because it’s not big, but breaking in is a big challenge,” she says. “As a woman, society expects me at a certain age to have a family, but change is constant, and change is nice.”

Sylvia grew up in Nairobi and graduated top of her class at the Wildlife Research and Training Institute (WRTI) in Naivasha. “Growing up, I never knew that I wanted to become a conservationist but after being selected to attend WRTI in Naivasha, that is where my passion for nature and wildlife started,” Sylvia says. After graduation, she was selected for an internship at Mara Elephant Project and not long after joined the MEP long-term monitoring (LTM) team. She is the first one in her family to work in conservation. “In my family, we only have teachers and doctors,” she says. “This is something new and no one else except me has done it.”

Having been on the team for two years now, Sylvia loves the appeal that no day is ever the same. Besides the daily identification work that the LTM team undertakes to feed data into MEP’s ElephantBook software, they are also key to monitoring the elephant population and working alongside Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), especially if an elephant is injured. “Most days we go out to monitor elephants but on other days, we wake quite early to go and search for a reported injured elephant and assist the vet with the treatment,” she says. “Those are the best days.”

Sylvia’s two most memorable experiences include an elephant treatment with KWS Vet Dr. Mukami with the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust Mobile Vet Unit. “It was a hot day, so we didn’t expect that it was going to rain and then while we were treating the elephant for an arrow wound, the sky opened up and we were soaked instantly,” says Sylvia. Despite the weather, the elephant was successfully treated. The second, occurred on a routine day while monitoring elephants when the LTM team found a herd that just hours before had welcomed a new member. “If we had met this herd of elephants a few hours before, we would have witnessed the whole thing,” she says. “This was a very emotional moment for me and my colleagues.”

Sylvia has used her conservation career to mentor the next generation of female conservationists taking after one of her role models, MEP Coexistence Farm Manager Abigael Pertet. “If I were to switch jobs with anyone at MEP, it would definitely be Abigael,” she says. “She inspires me very much since she a mother, she is currently pursuing her masters, and she works full-time in conservation.” With generous donor support, Abigael and her team launched the MEP School Program which has allowed Sylvia an avenue to nurture the future conservationists. “When I go into schools, I tell girls that they can achieve anything we have achieved and more,” she says. “It’s impactful for them to see us happily working in conservation.” Sylvia is hopeful for the future of women in conservation. “I believe ladies more and more will be given the opportunity to lead so that the world can see what we can really do.”

“To all the women out there, you are really doing an amazing work. Even if you don't get recognition or appreciation for what you're doing, you're really doing it all. Kudos for multi-tasking between your work life and the family life. And as the current generation, we are also looking forward to creating an impact so that the coming generation will have role models and to motivate them in also creating something much bigger and impactful.”

Sylvia Nyarangi Ondabu

Listen to Sylvia’s full interview on the latest MEP sponsored episode of Boots on the Ground podcast. Available now.