Women’s Empowerment At The Core Of This All-Female Anti-Poaching Unit In Zimbabwe

Adrian Steirn

A new all-female anti-poaching unit launched in December 2017 was formed at the unique intersection of female empowerment and environmentalism. Akashinga, which means “the brave ones”, is based in Zimbabwe and was created by the International Anti-Poaching Foundation organization with the goal to protect African wildlife while also empowering low-income and at-risk women in rural areas.

The IAPF was founded in 2009 by Australian Damien Mander, a former military sniper, who wanted to create an organization that could adequately match the growing sophistication of the poaching industry which has been using military tactics and weaponry which end up not only targeting animals but also rangers. Along with their ranger programs, IAPF also works with community organizations to engage with local people about the need for conservation. In their determination to stay ahead of the game with their anti-poaching efforts, Akashinga was formed as a way to increase their scope of advocacy in Africa.

According to a blog post on their website, IAPF states that Trophy hunting areas across Africa take up one-sixth of all landmass across participating countries. The first Akashinga group was formed as a pilot program and have been trained to look after an entire nature reserve. The IAPF was asked to help with conservation efforts in the Lower Zambezi region of Zimbabwe where elephant numbers have declined 40% since 2001. IAPF decided from the outset that they would create a program and only include disadvantaged women based on research that shows this demographic has the greatest potential reaching beyond just the conservation issue.

Adrian Steirn

“[A] growing body of evidence that suggests that empowering women is the single biggest force for positive change in the world today. Specifically, research shows that a woman with a salary in rural Africa invests up to 3 times more than a male into their family and local community. Female empowerment through skills development and sustainable employment in these rural communities delivers many direct benefits including increased life expectancy through better access to healthcare, more children able to participate in education, support for local businesses and the wider economy. Through employment, goods and services, over 70% of the operational costs of the Akashinga model go directly back into the local community, turning a security need into a community project,” says the blog post.

Damien also explained that a different approach to conservation was needed due to the ongoing corruption he has witnessed in the anti-poaching industry, as well as a lack of adequate and ongoing partnerships that foster education about conservation long-term. He says an innovative approach was needed, one that worked with local communities.

“Using an all-female team to manage an entire nature reserve is a bold and ambitious response and we have been astounded by the transformation and potential we have seen in this pilot project,” he said.

The local women participating are single mothers, sex workers, abuse survivors, widows, and orphans among others. Akashinga began with 16 women in the pilot program and entered the second phase with a total of 35 women. They receive the same law enforcement training as male rangers, and end up being equipped with skills such as leadership, unarmed combat, patrolling, camouflage and concealment, first aid, dangerous wildlife, democratic policing, search and arrest, human rights, crime scene preservation, crisis management, firearm safety and use, information gathering and conservation ethics.

While they are taken through the same training as men, IAPF points out that the women have in fact proven to be more effective at de-escalating situations as opposed to antagonizing them.

“This job is not meant just for men, but for everyone who is fit and strong,” said Akashinga member Vimbai Kumire, a 32 year-old single mother whose ex-husband ran off with a younger woman while she was pregnant with her second child, according to a feature on the group in the Guardian.

Another single mother, Primrose Mazliru, 21, says she has gained the respect of her community from being involved in this life-changing program.

“I don’t need a man in my life to pay my way for me and my child,” she told the Guardian’s Jeff Barbee.

The reporter outlined how the commercial poaching business has been on the decline and came to a head in 2015 with the news of Cecil The Lion being killed by American dentist Walter Palmer who received intense backlash after this. With IAPF’s efforts to show local communities  in Zimbabe how conservation can become a new source of financial independence, they have the ability to help further the poaching decline by showing a better economic alternative.

“Revenues are plummeting and human populations around parks growing,” he wrote.

Jeff interviewed Damien Mander who explained he was inspired to start an all-female anti-poaching unit after hearing a talk from some of the members of the South African-based Black Mambas female anti-poaching group at an event in New York. Although IAPF had high hopes for Akashinga, the group’s efforts have already outperformed expectations, with only 3 women in total dropping out from the original group. However, arguably the most impressive and important aspect of the program is the impact it is having on local lives.

“We have turned a security need into a community program,” said Damien.

Adrian Steirn

People are starting to take notice of Akashinga’s efforts. Acclaimed South African photographer and filmmaker Adrian Steirn (whose images can be seen on the IAPF website, in the Guardian article and here in this piece) has been documenting the Akashinga project from its inception.Tariro Mnangagwa, 32, the youngest daughter of Zimbabwe’s new president Emmerson Mnangagwa is a professional photographer who has been visiting and training with the group.

“These women show me hope,” she said.

All the women of Akashinga have also adopted a vegan lifestyle, which Damien spoke about in a TEDx Talk he gave in Sydney, Australia, in 2013. From protecting animals during the day, it seemed to only make sense not to go home and consume them on their dinner plate. The conservation is clearly hitting the right note and making an impact which could help foster financial stability and female empowerment for years to come. We’re in awe of this program and hope to see it continue to grow in other countries where poaching is still a problem.

You can learn more about Akashinga in the video below created by reporter Jeff Barbee.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.