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Africa’s first armed, all-women anti-poaching unit is reinventing the continent's idea of conservation

While traditionally men take most front-line positions in conservation, putting the well-being of wildlife in the hands of trained women is ushering in a new era.

Africa’s first armed, all-women anti-poaching unit is reinventing the continent's idea of conservation
Cover Image Source: International Anti Poaching Foundation

Kelly Lyee Chigumbura had to drop out of school and put aside her dream of becoming a nurse when she got pregnant with her rapist's child. With no skills or prospects to provide for her daughter, she had to give the child to the father's parents as per cultural norms among the Shona. Without even being able to visit her daughter, Chigumbura had all but given up on life when the village head pulled her aside and told her about an Australian named Damien Mander who was looking for female recruits to become wildlife rangers.


Chigumbura jumped at the opportunity and went through an intense three-day-long military-style try-out after which she was invited to join the new force along with 16 other women—many of whom came from similar backgrounds of abuse. When Mander asked them to come up with a name for their unit, they settled on Akashinga: 'the Brave Ones' in Shona. According to BBC, the Akashinga was put in charge of patrolling and protecting Zimbabwe's Phundundu Wildlife Area, a 115-square-mile former trophy hunting tract in the Zambezi Valley that's home to some 11,000 elephants. As far as Mander knows, Phundundu is the first nature reserve in the world that's managed and protected by an all-women ranger unit.


While traditionally men take most front-line positions in conservation, Mander believes putting the well-being of wildlife in the hands of trained women could usher in a new way of carrying out conservation—one far less violent and capable of empowering women and improving communities in the process. "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,'" said the former special operations sniper in the Australian Defence Force. "We're seeing increasing evidence that empowering women is one of the greatest forces of change in the world today."


"In the Special Forces, we had never had women or wanted women. We prided ourselves on being the only male unit in the military," Mander revealed. A stint in Southern Africa brought him face to face with the escalating plight of elephants and rhinos, making him realize that his particular skill set could be put to use defending wildlife. "Nature gave me a second chance—an opportunity to reengineer myself for a higher calling," he said. Thus began the International Anti-Poaching Foundation, a non-profit organization that brought a militarised, special operations-approach to wildlife protection.


However, he soon understood that the key to long-term wildlife conservation is community buy-in and that by bringing more women to the front lines, it could be a win-win situation for all. Mander and his colleagues put the word out to the 29 villages bordering Phundundu that they were looking for women aged 18 to 35 who were victims of sexual assault or domestic violence, who were single mothers or abandoned wives, or those who were Aids orphans—women who could most benefit from a new life. Nearly 90 women turned up for pre-selection. "These weren’t victims of circumstance, these were victims of men," said Mander.


The 37 women who progressed to the three-day try out were challenged with various endurance and team-building trials including packing up a 200-pound (90kg) tent, dragging it up a mountain with their legs tied together, and then reassembling it. Despite "exposing them to the four pillars of misery," only three women dropped out. Mander, who has "built a career across three continents by bringing fairly hardened men to the point of breaking," was shocked by the grit the women displayed. "The distance a person puts between suffering and breaking is what defines character, and these women had it," he said.


Since Akashinga took charge of Phundundu, wildlife has returned to the area and the rangers encounter animals on almost every patrol. "One thing that I am sure of is that Akashinga has brought a new dimension to conservation and law enforcement in Zimbabwe," said Victor Muposhi, an ecologist at Chinhoyi University. "Women are equally as good as men – and could be even better."


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