An all-female ranger team challenges the workforce gender gap

An all-female team of rangers treks through a snowy forest in China looking for clues of big cat whereabouts

In a recent global survey conducted in 26 countries with 6,241 rangers, only an estimated 7.5% of the ranger workforce was female. Addressing the need to include more women in this male-dominated profession is not only important to gender equality and human rights goals but can also improve efforts in conservation such as building stronger relationships with communities, and effectively managing parks and wildlife.

In Northeast China’s Heilongjiang Province, a unique ranger team exists – the only all-female patrol team monitoring China’s tiger range. A woman named Qui Shi is a member of the patrol team for the Dongning Forestry Bureau. Shi’s team will trek for hours to patrol, including recording data on big cats, setting up camera traps, and removing snares in this snowy and steep terrain, where temperatures can drop as low as minus 40 degrees Celsius. The team also interacts closely with their communities to understand the local people’s concerns, particularly related to human-wildlife conflict, and to communicate the importance of protecting local wildlife like tigers from poaching.

“I am very proud of the work that I do. We live beside the forest, regarding it as a companion, and I encourage my family to pay attention to the harmonious coexistence of humans and nature, and to care consciously about wildlife,” says Shi.

Here's a typical day for Shi's team:

A ranger prepares to begin her day's work patroling China's tiger range.

Deep in the mountains of Northeast China is tiger range territory. At first light, the six rangers set out on patrol, preparing to trek for hours across the freezing and unforgiving terrain. The women pay close attention to the ground, scanning for footprints and snares as they patrol. The snares are often well-covered and difficult to spot, which can lead to accidents like this as one of Shi’s team members gets her foot caught in a snare.

A ranger helps her colleague remove her foot from a snare.

Removing a dangerous snare from the forest.

The team walks three hours, one way, to reach Tubaogou, home to Amur tigers and leopards. Climbing up the steep and partially snowy mountainside, Shi and her colleagues change the batteries and replace the data cards in their infrared camera trap used to capture video footage of any big cats passing by in the night.

One team member spots a string of footprints and after studying and measuring them, they determine the prints belong to a leopard. The team takes photos and records the coordinates on the patrol record.

“These moments are the highlights of our days; every trace of a wild animal is a thrill. It may be unforgiving, but when we see roe deer walking among the trees, this landscape feels like a fairy tale,” says one of the rangers.

Rangers change the batteries of a camera trap.

Rangers recording data on big cat movements.

Why a gender-balanced workforce is important

Women bring a different set of skills, experiences, and knowledge to the ranger workforce and increased evidence suggests women can build different relationships with communities that men may struggle to do due to cultural barriers. For example, women rangers can have easier access to community-based women’s networks to communicate information around conservation, mitigating human wildlife conflict, and sustainability-related livelihood issues. This can help increase engagement of women community members as ‘citizen scientists’ and including their perspective is important because women in local communities also have first-hand knowledge of and experience with wildlife and conservation issues in their everyday lives (working in the fields and mangroves, herding, harvesting along shorelines etc.). Gender-balanced ranger forces create a broader base for community ‘ownership’ of and commitment to conservation efforts.

The team jumps for joy after a day's work.

What needs to be done to encourage gender balance within the ranger workforce

Women want to participate in the ranger workforce as much as men do. To enable and encourage better gender equality in this profession, an overall shift away from the “traditional attitudes” towards gender norms should be prioritized by top senior managers and leaders. Across the ranger workforce, there needs to be structural changes which include policies in place to establish gender equality as a priority and requirement, as well as enforcement against gender-based violence and harassment in the workplace. More needs to be done to not only educate female programs about opportunities in this field, but also to better educate current rangers on why gender equality is so important as a human right and to conservation. To ensure effective policies, there needs to be a more comprehensive understanding of the problems, and more data needs to be collected on female rangers and their experiences and concerns within this profession. Although much more needs to be done to establish better gender equality in this profession, highlighting the work and successes of current female rangers is one way to encourage these conversations.