Women leading in conservation

20 min readMar 8, 2021

Alice Ruhweza, Regional Director, Africa Regional Director
Denise Stilley, Communications and Campaigns Manager, WWF-Viet Nam
Edgar Reyna , Communications Strategist, WWF-Mexico
Rose Thuo, Head of Communications & Marketing, WWF International

Introduction by Alice Ruhweza, Africa Regional Director

This is the most exciting time of year for me. It is like Christmas and my birthday all rolled up into one day. It’s International Women’s Day and a public holiday in my home country of Uganda. When I was growing up, there were many firsts for women. Uganda, for example, was the first African country to have a woman sitting in the highest office in government: Vice President Specioza Naigaga Wandira Kazibwe (1994–2003). Dr Specioza is also a medical surgeon; she had many firsts.

Before her, there were many other women being first in something or the other. Their stories are lost in time. However, today, with my global south sisters, Rose Thuo (Africa) and Denise Stilley (Asia), together with global south brother Edgar Reyna (Latin America), we would like to tell the stories of some of the women leaders working at WWF today so that they may be known, heard and remembered.

Women have led before, women lead today — leading alongside men for the benefit of nature and people. We are all together, making it possible for this planet to thrive.

Here are some of the women leading in conservation in WWF today.


Nanie Ratsifandrihamanana, Country Director, WWF-Madagascar

With a strong character, Nanie has an immense capacity to learn quickly, an extraordinary spirit of synthesis and a great heart. She has complete confidence in her office, considering everyone’s opinion, expertise and aspirations. She encourages discussion through regular check-ins, thus setting clear goals for everyone. Nanie personifies our values: courage, collaboration, respect and integrity.

Nanie‘s involvement in conservation began in the early 1990s. She joined WWF in 1999, and became WWF-Madagascar’s Country Director in 2014. She took a leading role in designing and implementing Madagascar’s protected area network from 2005, which includes 126 protected areas all over the country as of 2019. For more than three years, she represented Africa in WWF’s Network Executive Team. She is one of the most listened to voices in the Malagasy environmental field, leading WWF-Madagascar’s integrated approach and putting local communities, nature and sustainability at the heart of conservation.

Domoina Rakotomalala, Mahafaly Landscape Manager, WWF-Madagascar

In the 90s, Malagasy scientists rushed to study lemurs and birds, while reptiles and amphibians were shunned by researchers. Indeed, reptiles have a bad reputation in Malagasy culture. They are believed to be creatures of evil, to be wicked and bring bad luck, so people are afraid of them.

This rejection and lack of interest became an opportunity for a young Domoina, who was an agent for change among Malagasy scientists while studying and researching at the University and became the first female Malagasy herpetologist. Some years later, several youth scientists followed her example and a new generation of herpetologists emerged in Madagascar. Some of them worked and keep working until today with internationally renowned researchers.

Since 2015, Domoina has led WWF’s work in the Mahafaly landscape, which is home to one of the most endangered reptiles in the world, the endemic radiated tortoise. In the fight against tortoise illegal trafficking, together with her team, Domoina has contributed to the implementation of a new concept: a “network of contributors” (including the police force, the court, civil society organizations and NGOs, the forestry administration and investigative journalists) who are now well coordinated in efforts to reduce corruption linked to illicit trafficking of species. This network has proved to be a big success in identifying traffickers and making sure they are prosecuted.

Want to know more about women in Madagascar conservation scene? WWF Madagascar has produced a video series of #womenleading in the conservation field. Here is a link to their YouTube page.

Juliane Zeidler, Country Director, WWF-Namibia

While living and working at the Gobabeb Training and Research Center in the Namib Desert, Juliane obtained MSc degrees and a PhD in Ecology. She has always been fascinated by learning about people and nature — and conducting research on how people and nature interact has been at the heart of her interest. Today, she works at management level as the Country Director of WWF in Namibia. Having a science background is super helpful and definitely helps her understand and lead conservation with the communities and government of Namibia.

Rose Thuo, Head of Communications & Marketing, Africa, WWF International

Starting her career in journalism, Rose has had the privilege of being the youngest female leader in every role she has held over the years. This is the root of her vision for a world where young women have a big seat at the decision-making table and/or create a table where others can sit and be seen and heard. She’s an award-winning business and radio producer as well as leading teams in groundbreaking public health campaigns. Rose specializes in forging global partnerships for youth empowerment, gender parity and diversity.

Nachilala Nkombo, Country Director, WWF-Zambia

As a global thought leader, Nachilala is a member of the Malabo Montpellier Panel, as well as the Chicago Council on Global Affairs 2018 global food security report task force and a board member of the Lusaka Water Security Initiative. Nachilala is a member of the WWF International Network Executive Team (NET) and was recently elected as its Governance Practice Champion. The NET engages with and acts on behalf of the WWF Network in making Network-wide decisions affecting over 100 country programmes worldwide. Her leadership expertise covers a range of sustainable development policy areas — with her most recent successes involving leading partnerships with the Africa Union, the African Development Bank, and civil society and governments of Benin, Nigeria, Niger, South Africa, Mali, Senegal, and Zambia focused on agriculture, nutrition health, and land reform and investments.

Jennifer Hacking, Conservation Director, WWF-Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)

Jennifer is a Canadian with more than 20 years’ experience in various sectors including government, industry, academia and not-for-profit organizations. She has a strong background in conservation planning, natural resource management, forestry operations, research, and environmental sciences education. Jennifer has worked in community-based natural resources management, conservation research and education, and forest restoration, managing programmes, people, and resources for organizations based in Indonesia, Madagascar, Cameroon and Canada. Working overseas helped her to acquire strong skills in supporting community capacity building and engaging with NGOs, partners, and government officials to advance forest restoration and sustainable use objectives. Her strengths are in creative problem-solving with an excellent grasp of long-term strategic design.

Jennifer holds a Bachelor’s degree in Agriculture from the University of Guelph, Ontario, and a Master’s degree in Forestry from the University of New Brunswick in Canada. She is the mother of two children.

Consolée Kavira Semengo, Sustainable Energy Programme lead, WWF-DRC

Consolée holds a Bachelor’s degree in Health and Community Development at Université Libre des Pays des Grands Lacs. Prior to joining WWF-DRC, she worked for several years as a community agent in North Kivu with different bodies such as GTZ, Save The Children non-governmental organization and MONUC with its Demobilization, Disarmament and Reintegration Programme.

Consolée has almost 16 years’ experience working in sustainable energy activities in different fields such as participatory assessment of the energy needs of communities, awareness rising, participatory surveys and training of women’s associations. She contributed to the WWF-DRC improved stove project, which won the Waterloo Foundation Ashden Award for avoiding deforestation in 2013. Consolée is married and the mother of two beautiful children.

Lara Cristina Muaves, Marine Biologist, WWF-Mozambique

Lara is a biologist with more than 15 years of practical, hands-on, experience in managing field programmes and teams along the coast of Mozambique. She has also constituted and worked with international teams on research, data collection and management programmes. She has worked in the field collecting data from fisher folk and established programmes on coral reefs, no-fishing areas, seagrass beds, mangroves and moms-management oriented monitoring systems.

Over the 12 years of work, she has led programmes promoting climate resilience for communities and ecosystems, mainly temporary and local octopus fishery and women octopus fishery association, with great success in northern Mozambique. She is an inspiration to many and has advocated for the government to start the promotion of regulation of octopus fishing. She is part of a regional community of practice that exchanges experiences on climate resilience, monitoring and research. Her success is related to her leadership skills and leading by doing. She has published several reports and publications on a diversity of areas, from marine turtle monitoring to coral reefs surveys. She has a master’s degree in natural resources management and a bachelor degree in biology-ecology.

Kudzai Maigurira, People and Culture Manager, WWF-Zimbabwe

Kudzai has more than 10 years’ experience in human resources management, operations, and partner and donor engagement in the international NGO sector. Prior to joining WWF, she was with another international organization where she was pivotal in the change management process, operations and promoting and influencing good practice within implementing partner organizations in supporting programming. Kudzai has contributed in strategy formulation and implementation of the various NGOs she has worked with over the years.

Promise Makowa, Project Finance Analyst, WWF-Zimbabwe

She is an accountant by profession and an environmentalist by passion with 15 years’ experience mostly in public and private organizations, several of which are international. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Accounting, Advanced Diploma in Accounting, a Masters of Business in Administration as well as a Certificate in Credit Management. Promise is very passionate about making an impact in the field that she works in.

Vongai Makamure, Communications Manager, WWF-Zimbabwe

She has over 20 years’ experience working in communications for international development organizations. She believes in supporting communities to tell their stories and in the use of innovative tools and channels to raise awareness on issues affecting them. Vongai has worked in journalism, communications, and project management in different countries in Africa at national, regional and international levels. Vongai has provided leadership in various portfolios and contributed to the advancement of organizations and media by building their profiles, credibility and networks, supporting partnerships and resource mobilization to meet needs of affected communities. In her current role, she values collaboration and engagement with different partners on the importance of conserving the environment and living in harmony with nature. She especially believes in the potential of the youth and believes they play a critical role in coming up with unique messages and ways to protect our planet.

Clotilde Ngomba, Country Director, WWF-Cameroon

Clotilde is a conservationist imbued with several decades of experience. Before joining WWF-Cameroon Country Programme Office in February 2019, as Country Director, Clotilde worked for 11 years in various capacities in the government of Cameroon’s Ministries of Agriculture and Forestry.

She also spent time with the African Development Bank (AfDB) as the Coordinator for the Congo Basin Forest Fund (CBFF), a multi-donor fund hosted by AfDB and funded by the United Kingdom, Norway and Canada. Clotilde’s negotiation skills and strong sense of teamwork also resulted in an agreement between WWF and Cameroon’s Ministry of Social Affairs, to jointly promote and protect the individual and collective rights of Indigenous and other vulnerable people in the framework of biodiversity conservation.

Perhaps her most outstanding success was in her ability to influence the Cameroon government, through the Ministry of Forestry and Wildlife to make a firm public commitment to fight against violation of rights of Indigenous Baka people.

Nancy Githaiga, Head of Conservation Programmes, WWF-Kenya

Nancy is a scientist and a natural resource governance and management expert, who is passionate about making inter- and intra-generational equity a reality. For over 15 years she has made her contribution to the management of natural resources and is keen on driving systemic change through policy influencing and promoting community-based natural resources governance driven by her belief that sustainable management of natural resources is only possible when communities, who are the custodians and greatest stewards of natural capital, own and drive change. She believes that real development happens when people, especially the most marginalized, can address the challenges that beset them. Her passion for environmental stewardship is four-pronged: social equity, community benefit, economic impact, and environmental protection. Understanding that there is a need for a different level of solutions to address current environmental challenges, Nancy is committed to working with the younger generation, exploring innovative and impactful solutions. Nancy has a Postgraduate degree in Hydrology and in Climate Change both from the University of Nairobi. She received her BSc from Kenyatta University.

Her mantra “I am committed to ensuring I return the Earth to my grandchildren in a better state.”

Irene Mwaura, Project Officer Climate Change and Energy, WWF-Kenya

Irene supports communities to access energy for household and productive use with a particular focus on the agriculture and fisheries sectors, household lighting and cooking, and climate change adaptation. She also supports capacity strengthening of stakeholders such as local CSOs and youth to equip them with skills to influence a positive change in the climate and energy sectors. She has supported setting up of clean energy village initiatives in Kwale with over 500 households benefiting from lighting and cooking solutions. She has also contributed to human-wildlife conflict mitigation using solar-powered predator deterrent lights in Kajiado and Narok counties with local partners; 226 bomas (livestock enclosures) have benefitted through a co-financing model, with zero predation reported. Irene is passionate about youth engagement and is supporting, through other programmes, these “now and future” conservation leaders.

Alice Ruhweza, Africa Regional Director

Alice Ruhweza is a global thought leader with extensive experience of working at the intersection of conservation and development in Africa and globally, fostering successful partnerships with a wide range of international institutions. As WWF’s Africa Regional Director, she leads and oversees a regional programme comprising 10 countries and over 500 staff. There she is leading the design of a new conservation framework that brings together work at national, transboundary and global levels, as well as development of a new system of programme quality assurance. She sits on the board of CGIAR and Global EverGreening Alliance, as well as the steering committee of the Future Earth Water-Energy-Food Nexus working group. Before joining WWF, she was Vice President of Programs and Partnerships with Conservation International, where she oversaw the Vital Signs Program, which provides data and diagnostic tools to help inform agricultural decisions and monitor outcomes around the world. She was also the Team Leader and Technical Adviser for the United Nations Development Programme Global Environmental Finance Unit in Africa. In this role, she led a team supporting 44 sub-Saharan African countries to attract and drive public and private finance towards their sustainable development priorities. Alice is an International Gender Champion, a fellow of the Salzburg Global Seminar, an Aspen New Voices Senior Fellow, and a Henry Arnhold Conservation Fellow.


Bouavanh Phachomphonh, Sustainable and Bamboo Project Manager, WWF-Laos

Bouavanh is a conservationist and leader of the Laos Rattan and Bamboo Project Team in WWF-Laos. She works closely with government staff and villagers on sustainable rattan forest management, rattan forest certification, and improved livelihoods for forest-dependent communities.

Pha Nem, Livelihoods and Ecotourism Officer, WWF-Cambodia

Pha Nem is at the forefront of creating livelihood models to support communities with better household income and quality of life. The models are sustainable self-financing projects run solely by the community groups. These include chicken production, fish production, cow bank , buffalo bank, rattan harvesting and processing, and vegetable production models.

Most of the communities in the programme live adjacent to protected areas along the Mekong River. Sustainable alternative livelihoods and community-based ecotourism activities in the Mekong Flooded Forest Landscape are essential for people and nature.

Joann Binondo, Project Manager of Sustainable Tuna Partnerships, WWF-Philippines

Joann is WWF-Philippines’ champion for sustainable tuna. Originally a political scientist, Joann fell quickly into environmental work as a coastal resource management and community development officer. For over a decade she worked to empower coastal communities and small-scale fisherfolk, building networks to protect marine protected areas in the Visayas. After a stint with USAID, Joann joined WWF-Philippines as site manager for the Partnership Program Towards Sustainable Tuna (PPTST), before becoming project manager of the Tuna Fisheries Improvement Project — where she became the “queen of sustainable tuna”.

She says: “Working for the environment has been my passion, ever since I was young. I grew up with the beach as my playground, and as a youth leader back in my home town it was already my advocacy to protect the environment. It’s no wonder that I love what I’m doing?” The past decade has seen Joann hop back and forth from Mindoro and Bicol, Manila to General Santos, working for the rights of municipal fishermen and for the protection of our countries’ fisheries. From hook to cook, she’s worked all along the fishery supply chain, doing what she can to make sure there is enough tuna for all and enough fish for our futures.

Nguyen Thi Dieu Thuy, Plastic Program Director, WWF-Viet Nam

Thuy joined WWF-Viet Nam in 2006, starting off as Marine Fisheries Officer then moving to Project Manager of Fisheries in 2011, before being appointed the Ocean Practice Lead in 2016. Thuy has been promoted to the Plastic Program Director recently and has grown from being a fisheries officer into becoming the director of one of our largest funded programmes in her dedicated 15+ years with WWF-Viet Nam.

“I love the sea and underwater creatures. I feel fortunate that I have had so many chances to see marine turtles laying eggs at their nesting grounds on beaches, whales and dolphins swimming at sea, colourful coral reefs and fish of countless variety. I would feel so remorseful if our children never had the opportunity to see these in their lifetime.

“Over the last 20 years, I have witnessed the negative changes in the catch and bycatch of fishing boats, and plastic waste killing coral reefs, whales, and turtles. WWF-Viet Nam has steadily worked with local government and communities to stop these trends from continuing. I am happy to see the Ben Tre clam communities have better production and profit, while mangroves have increased instead of being cut down; sea turtles that have been released by fishermen; and the major shift in a community near a marine protected area from being a hotspot of plastic waste into a green and thriving place.

“Conservation is facing many challenges in this world where demands for a steadily growing population and modernization are preferred and prioritized. I always believe our conservation works are critical to balance and to keep this blue planet better for future generations.”


Marisela Silva Parrera, Forest Protector, Colombia

Marisela is the Secretary and only female member of the local Los Exploradores –The Explorers group — in the municipality of Calamar, Guaviare Department, Colombia. This WWF-supported group of local farmers and community leaders works to stop deforestation, protect natural resources and provide alternative livelihoods for local people. They work in the “buffer zone” around Chiribiquete National Park, a World Heritage site and the world’s largest tropical forest protected area.

The most recent annual figures show that the Amazon is still the principal location of deforestation in Colombia with 98,256 hectares, an area bigger than the UK’s Dartmoor National Park, lost in 2019. Early indications are that among all protected areas, Chiribiquete has been one of the most impacted by deforestation in 2020. This highlights the need for practical, community-led conservation work carried out by those like Marisela.

As a woman, Marisela has faced many challenges in her work — even from other women. She explains: “Being a woman and being a leader has a lot of special things about it. The criticism is more destructive than constructive. It is very difficult for female leaders and for women. A lot of women say I shouldn’t be doing it — that, because I have to go to meetings and do things, I will lose my husband, I will lose my children. But I know that what I am doing is good.”

For Marisela, being trained as a conservationist has opened her eyes to the world around her.

“Before, I saw the forest as just a load of trees in a piece of land, without importance. I knew they gave oxygen for us to breathe — I had studied about that. But I didn’t give it much importance. However, now, being in the group, Los Exploradores, with the training we have received, I get really happy when I find these trees in the forest that are so beneficial.”

Marisela has seen the negative impacts of deforestation on her forest home even in the 17 years since she moved to the area. There has been an increase in flooding, as there are fewer trees to absorb the water, and the community is at greater risk from the hot sun. With the training she has received, she is able to advise her neighbours on the value of protecting the forest habitat, such as not polluting the rivers which run through it.

As a member of the local community, and a farmer herself, Marisela is keen to preserve the forest for those who come after her. “I want, when I leave this world, for them to remember me as someone who has left a legacy of something solid, and not someone who started something, then got frustrated and didn’t do anything…I want them to remember me for what I did, and not what I didn’t do.”

Marisela is now planting 5 hectares of native trees on her farm as part of the restoration work in the area, in a pilot supported by WWF-UK. She hopes that the learnings obtained in this pilot will be replicated in other farms in the village.

Link video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=30KNhSu-944

Rose Duran, Preserver of the Inirida Fluvial Star, Colombia
(Beneficiary of WWF project)

If you are an Indigenous woman in the Turripaco ethnic group, you have two options: speak with determination and courage or remain silent. Despite the obstacles, Rosa Durán, a 32-year-old young Indigenous woman, chose the first option. Today, she is one of the few women leaders in her clan and is in charge of leading the Ramsar Group of the Fluvial Star of Inirida, an organization that brings together the 25 Indigenous communities that make up the largest Ramsar Site in Colombia.

The Fluvial Star of Inirida is the sixth Ramsar Site in Colombia and the first in the Orinoco Basin-Amazon Biome. The overall area covers 253,000 hectares and is home to many species: more than 900 plants, 400 birds, 470 fish, 200 mammals and 40 amphibians. It contains an important freshwater area in the frontier region with Venezuela, a transition zone between the Orinoco and Amazon, conserving the confluence of four different river systems, with three (Atabapo, Guaviare and Inirida Rivers) that flow into the Orinoco, the third most important river in the world in terms of water volume. It is a spectacular landscape dotted by tepuys (table-top mountains) and the varied colours of the different river systems.

The preparation of Rosa began when she was just a child, as her grandmother, one of the clan’s leaders, taught her the trade of Indigenous women and inspired her to work for her people. “We must get it into our heads and hearts that we are capable of thinking and leading our people. We don’t have to be afraid of what is destined, or to earn a place that is already ours. That’s what my grandmother told me,” Rosa explains.

In 2017 she began working with WWF-Colombia in the development of the management plan for the Ramsar site, by explaining to the different communities of the territory the process to ensure the conservation of resources in a protected area. “It was tough because many men do not respect a woman’s opinion. Before speaking, you must show that you have the ability and knowledge to do so. It was a long process, but I was finally accepted and now they respect my opinion as if it was theirs,” Rosa says.

Under the leadership of the Ramsar Group and with the support of other organizations such as CDA Corporation, SINCHI Institute and Natural Heritage of Colombia, local communities follow up on the agreements made in the management plan for the Ramsar site and the activities undertaken to conserve it. This includes the monitoring of fauna carried out by different groups in order to know the status of species and take actions that assure their permanence in the future.

“For the women I only have one advice: leave the fear behind because it doesn’t do any good. We also have the ability to think beyond to guide our families towards a better future,” Rosa concludes.

María del Carmen García Rivas, biologist and Director of the Contoy Island and Puerto Morelos Reef National Parks for the National Commission of Natural Protected Areas (CONANP), Mexico
(WWF partner)

María del Carmen García Rivas © Armando Gasse

Although María, a trained biologist, grew up in the bustling inland metropolis of Mexico City, she recounts how the nature conservation values her family instilled in her as a child during their summer trips to the beach led her to a life dedicated to conservation.

Enamored with the ocean and the life that surrounded it, she studied biology at the National Autonomous University of Mexico and joined a team of scuba divers for field researchers. This experience marked a new chapter in her life. Diving and working with dolphins and whales alongside fellow biologists sparked her passion for the sea and the life it holds.

Her deep interest in the ocean’s biodiversity led to an opportunity to work at the Chilean Antarctic Institute, becoming the first Mexican to conduct research in Antarctica. This opened her eyes to larger international nature conservation efforts. “Meeting scientists from Spain, China, Ecuador, and other parts of the world was a great experience,” said Maria.. Working in the most southern part of the world, she explains, allows you to live and breathe nature and immerse yourself in collaborative conservation work like nowhere else.

At the beginning of her career, Maria was typically one of the few — if not the only — women on research vessels. Upon arrival, she felt she had to prove that she was adding value to the team every step of the way. “I wasn’t the strongest crew member, but I always found crafty ways to get the work and research done,” she states proudly, noting that she was raised in a family full of powerful women that have always supported her work.

“The women I worked with thrived in the extreme conditions and isolation that the research demands,” reflects Maria. However, she also recalls not being allowed to work in the commercial sector and only being offered a nursing position instead of the diver role she sought. She felt scientific researchers were more open to her contributions as a woman. Previous generations of conservationists saw fewer women in the field and this led the Mexican biologist to develop a deep sense of solidarity with women researchers and students from around the world whom she has worked with.

Though Maria helped pave the way for Mexican women in science, who now make up a large portion of the country’s biologists, she is most proud of her collaborative work with policymakers, communities and industries to implement good practices and drive coral reef conservation. She has successfully reduced poaching and illicit fishing practices that are harmful to coastal ecosystems in the Mexican Caribbean’s Banco Chinchorro, where officials and community members adopted a five-year ban on snail fishing. This resulted in a population increase for the species and new sustainable activities in the community. “We’re all better off if we see more pink sea snails in the sea than people in jail,” she explains. She has also led coral reef restoration efforts for over 15 years in the Puerto Morelos Reef, recently creating working groups that helped restore and stabilize over 13,000 coral fragments and colonies in 2020.

For now, there is no end in sight for Maria’s work. She feels that her call is to continue protecting nature as a way to support the well-being of humankind. For that, she’ll continue working with communities to implement good practices and communicate the importance of protecting nature. “I feel more comfortable in the water than I do in the city or in my bedroom… I love my workplace because the ocean is my office.”




Building a future in which people live in harmony with nature.