The Brave Ones: An All Female Ranger Unit Guarding Wildlife In Zimbabwe

The rangers gather for a meal at camp. The entire team follows a vegan diet.      Photo: Brent Stirton, National Geographic

An elite unit of rangers protects the Phundundu Wildlife Area in Zimbabwe — it’s a 115 square mile former trophy hunting area that is home to 11,000 elephants — and it’s the first nature reserve in the world to be managed and protected entirely by women.  The women rangers – many of whom came from backgrounds of abuse – call themselves the Akashinga, ‘the Brave Ones’ and are changing the face of conservation in Zimbabwe.

Why This Matters:  The Akashinga women are also changing the way the world protects wildlife by making it less violent and by empowering women and improving their communities as well.  The Australian former special forces soldier who started the Akashinga to protect Phundundu decided to recruit only women because they are “less susceptible to bribery from poachers and more adept at de-escalating potentially violent situations” and because they invest 90 percent of their income in their families, compared with 35 percent for men.  And, he thought, “[w]ho better to task with protecting exploited animals…than women who had suffered from exploitation?”  They are transforming the landscape and themselves, yet another example of women leading on the front lines of conservation.  

What the Akashinga Are Protecting

The region hosts two national parks — Mana Pools National Park, which abuts the Phundundu Wildlife Area, and Matusdona National Park.  The greater region has lost thousands of elephants to poachers over the last two decades, according to National Geographic. The Phundundu borders 29 communities, but sometimes the proximity of people and animals leads to conflicts and the rangers often must diffuse these situations.  Killing wildlife without a permit is a crime but wildlife parts such as teeth, claws, and bones can be worth hundreds of dollars on the black market and that is more than most people make in a month in Zimbabwe.  The Akashanga may be trained to kill, but their most important job is to educate these communities that the precious wildlife is worth more to the community as a whole if it is alive than dead due to poaching.

Empowering Women 

Their founder, Damien Mander told the BBC, “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.’ We’re seeing increasing evidence that empowering women is one of the greatest forces of change in the world today.”  And the job is transforming the women who make up the unit.  A documentary filmmaker who followed their progress said, “The change in them, the shift, is unbelievable…Whereas before they were ashamed in a way, now they have a spirit to them. They’re walking on air.” Mander hopes that by 2030, he can expand the model to employ 4,500 female rangers to guard more than 96,500 square miles of former hunting blocks across the African continent.

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