Conservation becomes a community enriching project.
The unit is called Akashinga, Shona for The Brave Ones, and it could not be more aptly named.
Founded by Damien Mander, an Austrailian former special forces soldier, Akashinga is a part of the International Anti-Poaching Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to preserving the Phundundu Wildlife Area.
Phundundu is a 115-square-mile area in the Zambezi Valley ecosystem which is home to 11,000 elephants and other endangered wildlife. In the past 20 years, frequent poaching has taken its toll on the reserve, resulting in the loss of thousands of elephants. While killing wildlife without a permit is illegal, animal trophies such as bones, tusks, and teeth can be sold on the black market for an amount equivalent to a month’s salary.
According to Akashinga’s website, anti-poaching initiatives often close off “traditional grazing areas, places of burial, worship, water points, food sources and traditional medicine,” making communities feel that endangered plants and animals are more important than their humanity. This resentment can fuel poaching attempts for which offenders can be arrested and sometimes killed. These experiences then reinforce the idea that endangered flora and fauna are of greater importance than the community, creating a cycle of resentment and violence.
To address this phenomenon, Akashinga takes a community-first approach to conservation. By recruiting women from the communities surrounding the Phundundu to serve on the unit, the organization is able to use conservation initiatives to enrich communities. Akashinga’s website describes the effort as having a “community-driven interpersonal focus, working with rather than against the local population for the long-term benefits of their own communities and nature.” To this end, 62% of operational costs are returned to local communities.
In this light, it is significant that the unit is made up entirely of women. According to National Geographic, research shows that in developing countries, women invest 90% of their income in their families, while men only invest 35%. Women are at the grassroots of community life, and when their wages are invested in their families, the entire community proffits.
But this is not the only reason that women are so right for the job. Mander had formerly trained male rangers for years before changing to an all-female model. He said that women are far better rangers; they are less likely to take bribes from poachers, and are skilled at de-escalating high tension situations. In National Geographic he commented that a gun in the hands of a man is a toy, but with a woman it is a tool.
Women also prove to be more resilient. Only three women quit the army-style training necessary to become part of the unit. When Mander was training men, all but three recruits quit after the first day. In National Geographic Mander said that, “we thought we were putting [the women] through hell, but it turns out, they’ve already been through it.”
This resilience is not without cause. Many of the women of Akashinga are victims of abuse, and have experienced their own trauma and exploitation. The BBC writes that Kelly Lyee Chgumbura, a unit member, was raped at seventeen and forced to drop out of school, abandoning her dream of becoming a nurse. She then had to give her baby to her rapist's mother, in accordance with Shona norms where if a mother is unable to provide for her child, the father’s parents become its guardians.
“My goals had been shattered,” she told the BBC, “It was like I couldn’t do anything more with my life.” A few years later, Chgumbura was recruited by her village head to try out for a ranger position. She was selected for the unit, and with a steady career now has a chance to win back custody of her daughter.
Being a ranger provides a sense of purpose as well as an income. “When I manage to stop poachers, I feel accomplished,” Chgumbura told the BBC, “I want to spend my whole life here on this job, arresting poachers and protecting animals.”
Like Chgumbura, most of the unit have faced traumatic experiences and lacked the agency and resources to protect themselves. “Who better to task with protecting exploited animals,” Mander told National Geographic, “than women who had suffered from exploitation?”
Phundundu is the first reserve worldwide to be managed entirely by women, but it will not be the only one for long. According to its website, Akashinga plans to welcome 1,000 new recruits who will protect 20 reserves. They aim to accomplish this by 2025.
EMMA BRUCE is an undergraduate student studying English and marketing at Emerson College in Boston. While not writing she explores the nearest museums, reads poetry, and takes classes at her local dance studio. She is passionate about sustainable travel and can't wait to see where life will take her.