Akashinga: The female fighters taking on illegal poachers, and the Australian training them – RN
Zimbabwean women are changing the face of wildlife conservation in Africa. (Supplied: International Anti-Poaching Foundation)
Dressed in green camouflage, a woman crouches by the edge of the Zambezi River.
Her task: to stop illegal elephant poachers — through might, mediation, or a combination of both.
In Zimbabwe, where conservation is increasingly a battlefield, a group of all-female anti-poaching rangers are on the frontline — protecting one of the world’s largest elephant populations.
‘The brave ones’
Known as Akashinga, the Shona phrase for “the brave ones”, the anti-poaching group of 39 women are selected and trained by an Australian.
Survivors of domestic abuse, widows and single mothers — Akashinga women have “been through hell”. (Supplied: International Anti-Poaching Foundation)
Damien Mander, a former military sniper and founder of the International Anti-Poaching Foundation, started recruiting female rangers in 2017.
The rangers have all lived through disadvantage; some are victims of sexual assault or domestic violence, others are single mothers from the Nyamakate area in Zimbabwe.
“Now they’re in positions of power in the community,” Mr Mander says.
Akashinga women undergo military-style training in unarmed combat, camouflage and concealment, search and arrest, as well as leadership and conservation ethics.
For ranger Nyradzo, this job has changed her life “totally” — including for her family and community.
The International Anti-Poaching Foundation (IAPF) pays each ranger a salary; overall, 72 per cent of Akashinga’s operating costs are invested back in the community.
On patrol, Nyradzo comes across evidence of poachers at least “three times per week”, who — for the most part — surrender when approached.
Women undergo ranger and scout training as part of the Akashinga program. (Supplied: International Anti-Poaching Foundation)
“We are armed,” Nyardzo says.
“Most of the poachers we have come across in the area are not resistant, but we might come to a situation where we might shoot them.
“For the moment, we haven’t come to a situation of shooting… because they’re scared of us.”
In her community in Zimbabwe, there aren’t that many circumstances where “men get scared of women”.
“So we are very proud of ourselves,” she says.
But the kind of conservation counterinsurgency these women are embarking on is a difficult, dangerous task; recently, two rangers died after drowning on patrol.
Mr Mander acknowledges the deaths as a tragedy that highlights the need for more to be done “beyond just conservation to provide access to training facilities and instruction.”
“I cannot express in words the heartache we all felt when this incident happened,” he says.
“Being a ranger is a tough, dangerous and often thankless job and we are doing all we can to ensure the safest possible working environment.”
A conservation crisis
Damien Mander says Akashinga women have a unique spirit. (Supplied: International Anti-Poaching Foundation)
Illegal poachers have claimed 11,000 elephants in the Lower Zambezi Valley in the past decade.
It’s a lucrative trade, with damaging long-term impacts to wildlife preservation.
The IAPF says elephant numbers in the region have nearly halved since 2001.
While Akashinga aren’t the only wildlife conservation group with a mandate to protect animals in Zimbabwe, theirs is a unique model.
“It’s the only reserve in the world that is managed and protected by women,” Mr Mander says.
And since its establishment in 2017, Akashinga have made 75 arrests.
“They’re breaking open local ivory-poaching syndicates and putting a number of people behind bars just in the past 14 months,” Mr Mander says.
The distance ‘between suffering and breaking’
For the former Australian Special Operations soldier-turned-conservation-crusader, these women have a character and spirit he’s not seen before.
“When I go out on patrol with them, I put my life in their hands, and I’m very happy to do so,” he says.
As a soldier, Mr Mander was deployed to Iraq, where he oversaw training of cadets at the Iraq Special Police Training Academy.
Now, he’s turning his skills to the conservation frontline, using his military background to inform the Akashinga ranger training program.
The International Anti-Poaching Foundation have documented their stories from the outset
When IAPF was first established, Mr Mander trained male rangers in anti-rhinoceros poaching efforts on the Mozambique-South Africa border.
It didn’t take him long to realise that he should expand his program to include women.
“The distance a person can place between suffering and breaking is what defines the spirit and character of an individual,” he says.
“That’s what we need. The rest we can train.”
He says training women will make a key difference in the long-term viability of the conservation effort in Zimbabwe.
“They de-escalate things,” he says.
“When you de-escalate things in a military or law-enforcement environment, it becomes a cheaper solution.”
As well as patrolling the local reserve, the rangers liaise with authorities and interact with the community.
It’s a multi-faceted approach that Mr Mander hopes will pay dividends in the future of the region’s wildlife conservation — and he’s hoping it won’t always require arms.
“It’s the community who’ll decide the future of African wildlife, not bigger fences and more guns,” he says.
“It is highly unfortunate that weapons are required, but there have been 8,000 elephants killed in this area in the last 16 years.
“That is thousands of armed units coming into the area willing to kill wildlife.”
And for rangers like Nyradzo, there are other benefits for her community.
“Because of [my] job, [my community’s] now coming to know the value of wildlife and how important it is to coming generations as well as present generations,” she says.