In2017, International Anti-Poaching Foundation started the Akashinga program on a former trophy hunting reserve in Zimbabwe’s Lower Zambezi Valley with 16 women trained as Africa’sfirstarmedall-femaleanti-poaching unit. With success, the ranks continued to swell. The impact has been phenomenal as they built strong relationships with the locals, de-escalated conflict and invested into their communities. The community response to this was to work with us in conservation, rather than against us. The women have chosen conversations over conflict – A natural instinct in which they have become the bridge that the increasingly militarized industry of conservation had to build into communities as a long term solution.
This region is home to one of Africa’s largest remaining elephant populations and a major target for poachers. Harnessing their unique ability to build local relationships, the program has become a pool of information relating to illegal wildlife crime across the region, and in turn, they have made 115 arrests to date. Many of these are related to organized crime and involve: ivory, weapons, pangolin, the use of the deadly poison cyanide and commercial bushmeat. Syndicates have been broken open and we have been advised of an 80% reduction in elephant poaching across the region since 2016.
The success of this program has lead local communities to engage us on more long-term land leases and I’m pleased to say that with their blessing, we have 5 parks on the portfolio now totaling onemillionacres. These areas are all formertrophyhuntingareas and if we did not implement this model, they would continue to be hunted, poached or handed over for settlement and lost forever.
To meet this obligation, we have started the training process of the next 240 full-time female rangers here in Zimbabwe. A growing, plant-powered veganarmy doing one of the world’s most dangerous jobs in one of her toughest regions.
These women will soon start training and deploy into an area in which 8,000 elephants have been killed by armed poachers since 2001. We hope for the best and prepare them for the worst.
As they mature into their roles, many will go on to further education that we will fund. They will become leaders that their families, community and even country will look up to.
We have a target of 20 former trophy hunting areas by 2025, employing and empowering 1,000 women. When I spoke to the 1st selection course last night as they prepared to commence, I asked them not to think of this as a job to be a wildlife ranger. Think of this as an opportunity to do anything they want to in life. That is what Akashinga is. It is an opportunity to fly.
Nearing the end of the 1st selection course in the training and deployment of 240 more Akashinga rangers here in Zimbabwe. So many memories flooding back to my time on selection in the Navy to become a diver, and later into Special Forces. Being exposed to the four pillars of misery – To be hungry, tired, cold and wet. You learn the most about someone when they don’t think they are being watched. How they behave. You can almost see one’s thoughts. Their self doubts. The distance one will place between suffering and breaking.
As we prepare these women for the front lines, I’m reflecting on the thousands of male soldiers, sailors, police, rangers and scouts that I’ve been involved in training over the past 20 years. In truth, there are really only a few things that matter, character and spirit. If you don’t have those things, you don’t have a chance. CV’s, references, qualifications and fitness levels mean nothing here. We don’t want perfect, we want scrappers. Someone that knows what it’s like to have to fight for survival. The rest will be learned.
These women are as tough as they come and they are willing and able to fight to the end. For so long, our vision has been clouded by ego from seeing the most powerful force in nature – A woman’s instinct to protect. Conservation is about protection, and few are as naturally ready for this job than the women in the communities bordering the area they are being tasked to protect. Their grandparents grew old here, they were raised here, their children will grow up here. It is their home and they have vested interest in the long term success of these areas.
Akashinga is purpose that seeks out the toughest of the tough to be nature’s fiercest protectors. When spirit and character meet purpose – nothing can stand in a persons way. Regardless of who you are, where you are from, or what you want to do in life.