The BBC World Service has featured a remarkable group of women – part of a project called Akashinga (the brave ones) – who take on trophy hunters in Zimbabwe.
The women have been trained and employed to manage an entire nature reserve by Damien Mander, Founder of the International Anti-Poaching Foundation [IAPF] and a former Australian special forces sniper.
Mander and the squad all follow a vegan diet – a move Mander has said avoids the hypocrisy of saving one animal only to eat another.
In early 2017 the IAPF was asked help with conservation efforts in the Lower Zambezi ecosystem, where elephant numbers have declined by 40 percent since 2001 because of poaching.
Inspired by the Black Mambas – the world’s first all-female (unarmed) antipoaching squad in South Africa – Mander decided to set up his own project, and train the women himself.
Selection for the project was opened exclusively to disadvantaged women from the local community, including unemployed single mothers, sex workers, victims of sexual and physical abuse, wives of poachers in prison, and widows and orphans, in order to create opportunity for the most vulnerable women in rural society.
The pilot project started with 16 women and is entering its second stage with a total of 35 women now part of the program.
Mander was staggered by how they have performed, saying: “36 women started our training, modelled on our special-forces training, and we pushed them hard, much harder than any training we do with men – we put them through hell.
“Only three dropped out. I couldn’t believe it.”
According to an IAPF spokesperson: “The women who have graduated into the program received identical law enforcement training and fulfill the same role as a male ranger.
“They learned skills such as leadership, unarmed combat, patrolling, camouflage and concealment, first aid, dangerous wildlife, democratic policing, search and arrest, human rights, crime scene preservation, crisis management, firearm safety and use, information gathering and conservation ethics.
“Their duties are to work with the community in order to stop illegal wildlife crime.
“The team is exposed to danger in their role, as are all male rangers – an unfortunate reality of conservation work.
“Women however have proven to be more effective at de-escalating situations as opposed to antagonizing them.”
According to IAPF, inspiration for the project came from the growing body of evidence that suggests that empowering women is the single biggest force for positive change in the world today.
They added: “Specifically, research shows that a woman with a salary in rural Africa invests up to three times more than a male into their family and local community.
“Female empowerment through skills development and sustainable employment in these rural communities delivers many direct benefits including increased life expectancy through better access to healthcare, more children able to participate in education, support for local businesses and the wider economy.
“Through employment, goods and services, over 70 percent of the operational costs of the Akashinga model go directly back into the local community, turning a security need into a community project.”
Damien Mander added: “Many current western solutions to conserve wilderness areas continue to struggle across the African continent, hampered by ongoing corruption, nepotism and a lack of partnership with local communities.
“We saw that an alternative and highly innovative approach was needed, a response that worked with rather than against the local population for the long-term benefit of both their own communities and nature.
“Using an all-female team to manage an entire nature reserve is a bold and ambitious response and we have been astounded by the transformation and potential we have seen in this pilot project.”