Hurungwe, Zimbabwe — The Akashinga unit offers a rare chance for poor and marginalized women, like school dropouts and victims of abuse, to build a career and protect nature

  • Akashinga’s unit aims to save wildlife and empower women
  • Ranger jobs provide good income for poor women
  • Some criticize nature conservation the army way

Sharai Tunhira frowns in concentration as she drills with her all-female patrol team – each woman armed and ready to take on the many men they catch poaching wildlife in their corner of northern Zimbabwe.

Despite the risks of the job, she says joining the military-style unit has given her the chance to protect the wildlife she loves while earning a decent living in a rural area where many poor women struggle to join the two ends.

“Here I am busy and self-sufficient. I don’t depend on any man to survive,” said Tunhira, 25, who joined the team in 2021 after years of earning a living as a cleaner and saleswoman. vegetables.

The Akashinga Unit – aka “The Brave Ones” in the Shona language – says it aims to change the face of conservation as the country’s first armed, all-female anti-poaching unit.

Unity is a rarity in a male-dominated industry.

According to a 2016 World Wildlife Fund survey of 570 rangers, one in five African rangers is female, although the continent has a handful of women’s teams, including South Africa’s Black Mambas and Lionesses. rangers in Kenya.

Created in 2017 by Damien Mander, an ex-Australian commando, Akashinga has since had a total of 200 heavily armed rangers who patrol eight reserves in the lower Zambezi Valley under contracts with three district councils.

WILDLIFE

Zimbabwe is home to some 80,000 elephants, about a fifth of Africa’s total, conservationists estimate. Numbers have declined sharply in recent years, mainly due to poaching, illegal hunting and drought.

The Zambezi Valley, which spans the border with Zambia, is home to thousands of elephants as well as lions and cheetahs.

Military-style units such as the Akashinga are controversial. Some conservationists said armed rangers using combat tactics injured and intimidated local residents in wildlife areas and failed to address the root causes of poaching.

Akashinga is part of the International Anti-Poaching Foundation (IAPF), a non-profit organization founded in 2009 by Mander. The IAPF says the unit focuses on wildlife protection through community engagement, from improving sanitation to creating jobs.

Mander said the IAPF initially focused on defending the area it protected, but that criticism has outdated, with a move towards recognizing conservation as a social issue that involves education and training. community empowerment.

“We were an extremely law enforcement-focused organization… We had helicopters, drones, and military equipment,” he said.

“We don’t have that now. It’s less antagonistic.”

He defended the Akashinga unit’s continued use of semi-automatic and bolt-action rifles because there is a real threat of poachers being armed with automatic weapons and women need to be prepared for the worst.

“For us to not train rangers, male or female, to deal with the threat they will face will be irresponsible. We will send them into harm’s way,” he said.

Having women as rangers “usually eases tensions,” Mander said, while teams working in their home communities help foster productive relationships with residents.

According to the IAPF, since 2017, Akashinga rangers have made more than 300 arrests without firing a shot and contributed to an 80% drop in elephant poaching in the Zambezi Valley, while animal sightings wildlife have increased by almost 400%.

Its figures could not be independently verified, but Ability Gandawa, legislator for Hurungwe North, which includes Phundundu Wildlife Park, said animal sightings had increased.

“I am impressed with their strong efforts to educate the community not to hunt wildlife,” he said.

“The effort has since resulted in a significant reduction in poaching in my area.”

ECONOMIC BENEFITS

What is beyond doubt is the benefit for female rangers, who include survivors of domestic violence, child brides and girls who have dropped out of school.

Rangers earn the equivalent of $300 to $1,500 a month, a good salary in a country where teachers earn an average of $120 a month.

“I had no idea I would work in a formal setting because most jobs are for educated people,” Tunhira said, cradling a gun, describing how her family could not afford to complete their education.

Margaret Darawanda, 24, another ranger and single mother of a three-year-old girl, recalls life before the patrol when she was dependent on her mother, herself a poor farmer.

“The opportunity to become a ranger came when I needed it most,” she said.

“I am now able to take care of my mother, my child and my community,” she said, her sights now on university.

Mander said 95% of Akashinga’s rangers come from within 20 km of the area they protect, with their salaries spent locally to benefit a wider area.

“We want to be a beacon of progress in the conservation industry,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“The idea is for Akashinga to be a stepping stone to women’s goals and follow a career path.”

FAMILY VIOLENCE

The IAPF aims to grow Akashinga to 1,000 rangers protecting 20 nature reserves by 2026.

Some said the unit gave them refuge after fleeing abuse and a sense of togetherness as they supported each other.

Esther Goboza, 22, asked to join the rangers to escape an abusive marriage. Her husband, in an effort to prevent her from becoming a ranger, burned her national identity card, a requirement for applying for a job.

“They gave me the opportunity. My husband even came to training camp to take me home but I held on,” said Goboza, who is now divorced.

Tracy Mukuni, 32, left her police job to join the unit as a trainer because she wanted to support other working women.

“It was about my passion to help my comrades achieve their goals,” said Mukuni, a drill sergeant who trains rangers in fitness, bush survival skills and ethics.

“There, they come face to face with armed poachers who are strong…These women have to be brave and skilled in protecting wildlife. They also have to take care of each other.”

(Reporting by Farai Shawn Matiashe @ShawnMatiashe, Editing by Sonia Elks and Katy Migiro. The Thomson Reuters Foundation is the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters and covers the lives of people around the world struggling to live freely or fairly. Visit http:// news.trust.org to see more stories.)