Animals in the wild are at risk of going extinct due to illicit poaching, and a new breed of rangers is not having any of it. An armed all-female ranger unit in Zimbabwe, the women have made it their job to save the wildlife for future generations while making a new life for themselves as well.
Zimbabwe is one of the African countries worst affected by poaching and usually wildlife rangers are men. But an all-female ranger unit armed to the teeth known as the Akashinga, Shona for ‘the Brave Ones’, has developed a new way of fighting poachers.
The group is led by former Australian army sniper Damien Mander, who has made his mission to champion animal causes. Mander recruited and trained women between the ages of 18 to 35 who were in dire need of a fresh start.
These women were mostly victims of sexual assault who had been stigmatized by their community and were on the verge of giving up on life. The team of about 30 rangers all have similar stories; they come from poor backgrounds and their villages have all been affected by poaching one way or the other and have no source of income to fend for themselves or their families.
Society shuns these women who are orphans, single mothers, widows, rape victims, wives of imprisoned poachers, victims of domestic violence and former prostitutes. It’s hard to find any decent work with a continuous stream of income, so joining Akashinga to fight a good cause and earn an income was all they had going for them.
Just like the elephants and rhinos that need protection from being poached for their ivory and horns and sold illegally on Asian markets, these women needed saving from themselves. Like a match made in heaven, Mander gave these women an opportunity to save themselves and save the wildlife in Phundundu Wildlife Park as well, which they do with pride and joy.
The first all-female ranger unit in Africa, the Black Mamba Anti-Poaching Unit, was formed in South Africa. However, Phundundu is one of the first nature reserves in the world to be managed and protected by an armed all-women ranger unit.
Armed women fighting poachers is not a concept that many accepted easily. Mander believed in his recruits and saw them beyond their sex. To him, women can work as rangers in the wild and be armed as well because poaching can get rather violent and they need to defend themselves.
“It’s very unfortunate that rangers are required to carry guns to protect animals,” he told BBC in 2018. “But we need to be willing to give them all the training and tools they need to be best equipped to handle whatever situation they may face.”
The tenacity and grit of these young women, who have had to deal with some of the worst situations in life, made them a force to be reckoned with. As of October 2017, the Akashinga helped to arrest 72 poachers all without having to fire a single shot. Mander said it’s because unlike men whose first instincts would be to shoot, women have the skill and empathy and though they have had violent altercations, they managed to subdue poachers with the skills they had acquired and their own can-do spirit.
Kenya has also set up its first all-female ranger unit, Team Lioness, whose members left their families to protect the wildlife at the peak of the pandemic.
Expertly trained women could usher in a less violent way of carrying out conservation which empowers women and improves communities in the process. Most of the Akashinga women, like their leader, are now vegan and are fully committed to saving and protecting animal life.
These women have transformed their lives entirely. Some have enrolled in school to further their education while others are putting their children through school with their earnings. Some have also been able to afford proper accommodation for their families and are gradually getting their families out of poverty zones with their work in the ranger unit.
“There’s a saying in Africa, ‘If you educate a man, you educate an individual, but if you educate a woman, you educate a nation’,” Mander said. “We’re seeing increasing evidence that empowering women is one of the greatest forces of change in the world today.”