By Chere Di Boscio
In Zimbabwe, Akashinga means ‘the brave ones,’ and that’s the perfect word to describe the group of women being trained in that country to defend their nation’s wildlife.
But Akashinga is more than a female anti-poaching team; it’s an investment into women and their families, dedicated to the development of rural communities and neighbouring wilderness areas. By empowering rural women, the program assists in local poverty reduction, healthcare, skills development, education, rape and sexual assault prevention, increased life expectancy, disease reduction and structured family planning. Research shows how this programme is helping change these formerly unemployed single mothers into community leaders.
It also acts as a viable alternative to trophy hunting.
Ending the Hunts
For decades, trophy hunting has generated income and security across the African wilderness; in fact, hunting areas make up a staggering one-sixth of all landmass across participating countries. Alternative forms of tourism, such as safaris, often don’t provide the same income as killing animals does.
Fortunately, due to a negative public perception and pressure from social media, trophy hunting is becoming less economically viable, and import restrictions on taking dead animals home are becoming more prohibitive. The belief within the trophy hunting industry is that limited wildlife populations will soon only be accessible to the financial elite to hunt.
But as benefits disappear from the communities, pressure on the protected areas increases. Where anti-poaching operations aim to protect a wilderness area from the inside working outwards, a level of antagonism is created.
Shut off from traditional grazing areas, places of burial, worship, water points, food sources and traditional medicine, locals often feel regarded as of lesser importance than the local flora and fauna. This resentment fuels poaching, and problems further compound when anti-poaching forces are outsourced from foreign neighbourhoods or even countries. Clearly, to continue preserving Africa’s animals, local communities need to be included – and they need to gain similar or greater benefits than what trophy hunting can bring.
The situation is getting critical. According to conservation biologist Victor Muposhi of Chinhoyi University of Technology, the lower Zambezi Valley has lost 11,000 elephants in the past 10 years. But he believes that hiring and training female rangers such as Kumire directly from the local communities is a game-changer.
“Developing conservation skills in communities creates more than just jobs,” says Professor Muposhi in the Guardian. “It makes local people directly benefit from the preservation of wildlife.” And that, he says, can save not only landmark species such as elephants but entire ecosystems.
From employment to goods and services, Akashinga invests at least 72% of operating costs directly back into the hands of local villagers. The full-time law enforcement staff are women, supported by instructors to continue with their career development. And this is a good thing for local families: studies show that a woman with a salary in rural areas invests up to three times more than a man into their family and household.According to the International Anti-Poaching Foundation (IAPF), these factors ensure an equal or better financial return and economic impact for the area than anything trophy could provide.
What’s more, protecting regulating access to their natural resources allows local communities to have the benefits of the land that they traditionally held. The Akashinga model partners directly with long-standing local stakeholders and traditional leaders, providing faster, easier and more stable access to management of wilderness areas over longer periods of time than any other model in Africa. It focuses on areas that need support, as opposed to areas that already have it.
The program is far from easy to join. The women employed by it receive the same law enforcement training and fulfill the same role as any male ranger, and need to learn rigorous skills such as unarmed combat, patrolling, camouflage and concealment, first aid, dangerous wildlife awareness, democratic policing, search and arrest, human rights, crime scene preservation, crisis management, firearm safety and use, information gathering, conservation ethics, and more
Their main goal, of course, is to work with the community in order to stop illegal wildlife crime. They patrol within and around the reserve, interact with the community, liaise with local authorities, and go through regular training. There is one armed unit, which works alongside an unarmed village scout program. The scouts operate from their own homes each day, which allows some flexibility for women who need to stay with children in the home.
According to the IAPF, women are much better at de-escalating tense situations, which is great, as they are working towards prevention as opposed to ruling animal habitats with extreme force. So far, this model has been highly successful, and is mapped out to become the largest network of wilderness protection on the African continent – a necessity to phase out trophy hunting.
The innovative founder of the Akashinga female anti poaching team is Damien Mander, a military-trained sniper from Australia. He got the idea for the team after hearing about the Black Mambas, the world’s first female, unarmed anti-poaching unit, who work near South Africa’s Kruger National Park, and thought that a similar project in Zimbabwe might be a good way to raise the profile of his own project, the International Anti-Poaching Foundation (IAPF).
He started with 36 women, and soon realised, after all by three of them completed a highly punishing training regime, that women were the missing link to successful conservation and anti-poaching initiatives. After only the first five months, Mander boasts that this pilot project is already putting more money per month into the local community than trophy hunting did per year.
What really fascinates us about this story is how tough-as-nails Mander has been fully vegan for five years – and has made all his rangers follow a vegan diet, too. “I was wandering around in the bush, protecting one group of animals and coming home and eating another. I could not live with the hypocrisy of that any more,” he said in this interview.
Surprisingly, given that African vegans are fairly rare, the whole team has have embraced vegan living quite happily. In fact, many of the women say they don’t miss meat at all, and feel healthier on a plant-based diet. Most importantly, these women are setting examples to their communities, proving they don’t need to eat bushmeat – or farmed animals. Which, of course, as any vegan knows, helps preserve not only wild animals and their habitats, but the planet, too.
This is a truly incredible project, for women, animals and the planet. But donations are needed to keep it going. Fascinated by the Akashinga? For more information or to donate, please click here.
All images: courtesy IAPF
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