This ongoing slaughter has pushed big game animal populations to dangerous lows, and although countries have cracked down on the legal market for endangered animal parts in recent years, the underground market for related products continues to thrive.
In Zimbabwe’s Lower Zambezi Valley, an experiment in women’s empowerment is proving that poaching can be curbed and animals can be effectively conserved through community-centric investments.
An anti-poaching unit called the Akashinga (which means “the brave ones” in Shona) has arrested 72 poachers since forming in 2017. In the past, Zimbabwe has struggled to stop poaching, even in protected areas and when making exceptions for trophy hunting. More than 8,000 elephants have been poached in regions throughout the country over the past 16 years, the BBC notes.
What makes the Akashinga unit groundbreaking, however, is that it’s made up entirely of women drawn from the most marginalized demographics in Zimbabwe, including single mothers, survivors of sexual abuse, orphans, and widows.
The mere existence of the group challenges prevailing gender norms that claim women are incapable of working in male-dominated fields, let alone one as dangerous as anti-poaching, which has seen more than 1,000 rangers killed while on duty over the past decade.
More than 70% of Zimbabweans live in poverty. Women are especially prone to poverty because they’re often relegated to unpaid domestic labor, and often spend up to four hours a day fetching water. For many Akashinga members, the opportunity to become a ranger has instilled a personal confidence that carries into other areas of life.
“My former husband used to exploit me,” Vimbai Kumire, a Akashinga leader, told the BBC in a video interview. “The marriage lifetime with him was a tough time because I just saw all my goals being shattered. I just want to prove that no job is meant for men, and I hope I have already proven it.”
The group was started by Damien Mander, a former Australian special forces soldier, who traveled to South Africa and was appalled by the level of poaching. He eventually came up with the idea of recruiting women because they seemed less prone to corruption.
“Historically, we’d have to recruit rangers from around the country to come in and protect an area like this so they’re not influenced by the people that they grew up with in the local community,” he said in the BBC video.
We are not only proud, but grateful to announce the recent grant provided to #IAPF’s #Akashinga program in Zimbabwe by the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation @dicapriofdn Thank you again for the amazing support as we expand Akashinga and its impact.— IAPF (@IAPF) February 20, 2019
For more: https://t.co/dQjxp4YWELpic.twitter.com/rWsjN3LC2U
“Women just don’t seem to be corruptible in that aspect,” he added.
Whether or not women are less corruptible than men is still a topic of debate, but preliminary research has shown that corruption in government decreases when female participation increases.
The Akashinga women are put through anti-poaching and conservation training courses, paid a living wage, and connected with groups to promote community empowerment.
“I tell them that building one’s person is very important, because the moment you become self-reliant, with your own job, the enables you to make decisions for yourself,” Mervis Chiware, a counsellor and lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe who advises the group, told the BBC. “It gives you the power to get out of abusive relationships.”
As the women gain financial independence, they’re also able to rejuvenate local economies, according to the BBC. In fact, an estimated 72% of the income earned by the rangers gets reinvested into local communities.
In these ways, the group is able to cultivate support throughout local communities and is able to open up new opportunities for girls and women.
While poaching is the biggest threat facing big game animals, they’re harmed by habitat loss, climate change, disease, and other factors.
That’s where Akashinga’s holistic approach comes in. Not only does the group thwart poaching efforts, it also promotes sustainability.
Mander, for his part, wants to eventually expand this concept throughout Africa. By 2030, he wants to employ around 4,500 female rangers covering 96,500 square miles.
And if the success of the Akishanga are any indicator, pulling off such a feat could greatly reduce poaching of big game animals.
“Whether you are my neighbor or my relative, if you do something wrong to my animals, i’ll catch you,” Kumire told the BBC.