HARARE, Zimbabwe — As the popularity of trophy hunting declines in Africa mostly due to activism, import restrictions, limitations on hunting specific animals and reduced wildlife populations, local attention has shifted to conserving Zimbabwe’s biodiversity rather than sustaining the legal hunting trade. While legal hunting has been argued to preserve animal species by giving landowners monetary incentive to conserve and protect ecosystems, a decrease in its popularity in the area does not provide enough money to motivate conservation. An all-female anti-poaching unit, an experiment that has proven to yield better economic benefits for rural Zimbabwe, has taken up the responsibility of conservation.
Akashinga, Anti-Poaching Unit
Named Akashinga, or “the Brave Ones”, the all-female anti-poaching unit is a product of the International Anti-Poaching Foundation, founded in mid-2017 by former Australian special forces soldier Damien Mander. Mander was inspired to start the foundation after a job assignment in South Africa, where he witnessed first-hand the toll poaching had on elephant and rhinoceros populations.
In seven years, elephants suffered a 30 percent population decline across the entire continent, and it is estimated that more than 7,000 rhinos were killed in the span of a decade. The numbers are bit worse in the areas where the Akashinga are based, in the Lower Zambezi region of Zimbabwe, where poachers have taken 11,000 elephants and decreased the population by 40 percent since 2001.
The Akashinga and the Need for Female Empowerment in Zimbabwe
As of 2014, about 26.3 percent of Zimbabwe’s children were being raised by single mothers, mainly due to deaths caused by diseases like HIV, malaria and tuberculosis, as well as increased rates of divorce and out-of-wedlock births. Thirty-five percent of women in Zimbabwe suffer physical or sexual abuse at the hands of intimate partners, and 20 percent of women suffer physical or sexual abuse at the hands of their intimate partners annually. There is a dire need for sources of female empowerment in Zimbabwe, and the Akashinga seems to be the right answer for this issue.
Job openings for the initial group of 26 rangers of the Akashinga were open exclusively for disadvantaged women of the community- victims of sexual and physical abuse, single mothers, widows, orphans and abandoned wives. Being part of the Akashinga empowers these women by giving them autonomy and providing them the economic stability to provide for themselves. Members of the Akashinga now enjoy the power to buy property, continue their education, get a driver’s license and provide for their families. Because of this program, these women are completely independent of men. Moreover, these women have positions of power in the community with authority to protect it, an undeniable feat for women and female empowerment in Zimbabwe.
Effects on the Community
In an interview with BBC, Mander said: “Long-term solutions to wildlife conservation involve winning the hearts and minds of the community, and the most effective way to do that is through the women.” Because the community is ultimately in charge of the fate of its wildlife, Mander believes that long-term wildlife conservation can only be sustained when the community is completely behind the idea of conservation. By providing jobs to the most vulnerable women in the community, the Akashinga strengthens its community economy and gives a reason for the community to support it.
It is estimated that as much as 72 percent of the Akashinga’s operating costs are invested back into the community, making it also a sustainable alternative to revenues from the legal hunting trade. This makes a huge difference in the lives of people living in rural Zimbabwe, where 76 percent of households are considered poor, as opposed to 38 percent of urban households. Thus, although traditionally a male-exclusive job in Africa, the Akashinga design is proving to be a revolution in permanent wildlife conservation in Zimbabwe by bolstering the region’s economic stability.
Expansion and Other Organizations
Despite some pushback from parts of the community who consider the job to be too dangerous and women unfit to be armed, the Akashinga is an undeniable success story. Since October 2017, 72 poacher arrests have been made by the Akashinga and Akashinga rangers bring a stable source of income both to themselves and to their community. Mander has plans to implement the same Akashinga design in Kenya, as well as to expand the current Lower Zambezi program.
There are several organizations that also work for female empowerment in Zimbabwe. The women’s coalition of Zimbabwe, a network of women’s activists and organizations, has a current project to increase police involvement in crimes against women and girls. This community-based project aims to promote police involvement in crimes against women by facilitating platforms for women and girls to engage with police in instances of violence, as well as raising awareness of police services designed to protect them. Additionally, the Single Mother’s Foundation (TSMF) is a nonprofit organization founded in 2017 focused on equipping, empowering, and educating single mothers and their children. The Single Mother’s foundation also works to create small businesses and jobs for single mothers, enabling them to afford food, clothes, and schooling for their children.
The Akashinga has proven to be a huge success for both wildlife conservation and female empowerment in Zimbabwe. This organization has provided females in the country with job security and stability while enabling them to do good for their communities. While disapproved by traditionalists in the country, the organization has set an example for others to follow.
– Jillian Baxter