European Wilderness Society is a proud member of the International Ranger Federation. Together we support rangers in protected areas, and raise awareness on the importance of their role. Therefore we are very happy when rangers receive the acknowledgement they deserve. Last month, a National Geographic released a documentary movie, which shines a light on Africa’s first armed, all-women, quasi-military, anti-poaching unit. “Akashinga: The Brave Ones” directed by James Cameron and Maria Wilhelm introduces the viewer to inspiring women of the Akashinga squad.
Please also read: European Wilderness Society joins International Ranger Federation
How it all began
The documentary tells a story about the Akashinga unit in Zimbabwe. It was founded by the Australian Damien Mander, former special forces soldier and passionate wildlife protector. He used to work as a special operations member in the Tactical Assault Group East, an elite counter-terrorism unit in the Australian Defence Force. After Mander retired from his military work, he got involved with wildlife protection in Africa.
Damien Mander worked along the Mozambican border of Kruger National Park in South Africa and in Victoria Falls National Park in Zimbabwe. At the time, poachers mercilessly killed rhinos in these areas. However, when Mander started his work there, incursions into Kruger from Mozambique significantly declined. And for the eight years his group operated in Victoria Falls, the park did not lose a single rhino. However, Mander understood that his line of work is only a band-aid on deeply rooted problems. He came up with an idea to create an all-women ranger unit, in order to exploit a powerful instinct each woman has – to protect the weak ones.
If you educate a man, you educate an individual, but if you educate a woman, you educate a nation. We’re seeing increasing evidence that empowering women is one of the greatest forces of change in the world today.
Women in a man’s world
Many people were skeptical of the idea. In Africa, some 20 000 to 25 000 rangers work in wildlife protection and they are mostly male, according to Thin Green Line Foundation, a non-profit organization that supports rangers. No exact statistics exist, but a survey showed that out of 570 rangers across 12 African countries just 19% were women. However, this is not the case in other continents. Women are common employees in nature conservation and serve as rangers in North and South America, Europe and Australia. Unfortunately, African cultures tend to assign the role of ‘dangerous ranger work’ to men.
Damien Mander had a hard time finding support for his women ranger squad. Many protected areas and land owners were skeptical of female rangers. They did not think it is a good idea to arm them or were scared of local people’s reactions to such a culturally provocative idea. Finally, Mander settled in Phundundu Wildlife Park – a 115 square mile former trophy hunting area in the Lower Zambezi Valley. The gently rolling hills and rocky outcrops of two national parks and a mosaic of tourism and hunting reserves homes around 11 000 elephants. Zimbabwe is home to the world’s second-largest population of elephants, and the Lower Zambezi Valley is one of the country’s four strongholds.
Akashinga – ‘the Brave Ones’
Damien Mander started recruiting females from local villages. He focused his search on women aged 18 to 35 and with a hardship background – victims of sexual assault or domestic violence, single mothers or abandoned wives, AIDS orphans etc. In other words, he was searching for women who would benefit the most from a new life. The initial military-style recruitment process lasted three days. Damien wanted to see the character and spirit of these women. He claims you can see the real character of a person best when they are hungry, tired, cold and wet. 17 women passed the tests and joined the force. They came up with the name for their unit – Akashinga, which means ‘the Brave Ones’ in Shona.
The Akashingas currently have 200 recruits and they have ambitious plans for expansion. By 2030, Mander hopes to see the Akashinga model expanded and adopted by others to employ some 4,500 female rangers watching more than 250,000 sq km of land across the continent.
Empowering women, educating communities, protecting wildlife
The Akashinga program is transforming the lives of women, local communities and the overall approach to conservation in Africa. A stable income helps the women to build their own houses, keep their children fed and provide them with education. Many rangers have enrolled into college courses, passed the drivers test and now have skills that can provide for their families even after retirement. Moreover, they feel self-confident, strong and empowered and healing quickly from their past traumas. Akashingas also give educational lectures in schools. By educating children about importance of wildlife conservation, they are spreading the message further into the local families.
The long-term solution depends on winning the hearts and minds of the community.
Just in the season 2017-2018, Akashingas made or contributed to 72 arrests without firing a single shot. In addition, there have been no hints of corruption – one of the most damaging deeds of conservation. Wildlife is already returning to Phundundu. And the rangers have noticed a peculiar trend – dangerous species like buffalo and elephant seem to behave less aggressively towards the women than the former male rangers. Of course, further scientific research is needed to confirm this observation. But for now, the guess is that the animals are used to perceiving men as a threat, because most poachers are men. But as women never posed threats to animals, they do not feel scared of women and do not attack them.
Mander believes that the example of Akashinga can start a new way of conservation – one that is far less violent and which empowers women and improves communities in the process.
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