Wildlife poaching has been a huge problem in Africa, and elephants are one of the species in the crosshairs. But one organization in Zimbabwe has come up with a novel idea to protect Africa’s largest elephant population. And it’s working better than anyone could have imagined.
Poaching: A Continuing Problem
The international sale of elephant ivory has been illegal since 1989. Also, many countries have banned its import. But many people are still willing to buy it — and to pay big money. As a result, killing endangered elephants for their tusks is big business. And it’s bad news for elephants. The Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, has lost 80 percent of its elephants since 1970. Poaching has cut west African populations down to scattered groups of less than 100. Tanzania and Mozambique have each lost around half of their elephant populations in the past few years.
As for Zimbabwe, some estimate that the lower Zambezi Valley has lost as many as 11,000 elephants in the past ten years to poachers.
A Clash of Interests
Previous conservation efforts established national parks, where endangered animals like elephants and rhinos could live without the threat of hunters and developers. Surrounding many of the parks are “game management areas,” where limited trophy hunting is allowed.
The game management areas serve two purposes. First, they act as a buffer zone between animals in the parks, and the rest of the country. Also, they attract rich and famous big-game hunters and tourists, some of whom pay $50,000 or more for a single trip. In a country where the average per capita income is around $2,200, that’s huge. These high paying, high profile hunters bring a lot of money and a lot of publicity to the surrounding communities. And the communities depend on it.
One problem is, there are no fences between the parks, where hunting is forbidden, and the game management zones, where it is allowed.
Another problem is that public outrage over trophy hunting — remember Cecil the Lion? — has caused the industry to collapse. And with it, the livelihoods of many in the areas around the national parks.
Which is why more people have turned to poaching.
The Akashinga Initiative
Australian Damien Mander understands the battle. A former underwater explosives expert for the Royal Navy, he is also a trained sniper. During his career, he also worked on a hostage recovery team. Later, he worked in Iraq, protecting Australian diplomats. He also helped to train the Iraqi police. In 2009, wanting to escape the destruction he’d witnessed in Iraq, Mander traveled to Africa. It was there that he discovered his calling — using his skills and training to protect wildlife.
Mander, a vegan, believes in protecting wildlife not just for ethical reasons, but also to protect threatened ecosystems. It was in the course of his work as a conservation activist that he met some of South Africa’s famous rhino protectors, the Black Mambas. And the Akashinga Initiative was born.
The Black Mambas are one of Africa’s only armed, all-female anti-poaching forces. Mander’s idea was for the Akashinga force to be another. Why women? Well, interestingly, Mander said that the women were better able to resist social pressure from people in the community who might be poaching.
“Women just don’t seem to be corruptible, in that aspect,” he told the BBC in the video below. Akashinga member Vimbai Kumire explains it this way:
“If you do something wrong to my animals, I’ll catch you.”
But are women really tough enough?
“I did a selection group of 189 men six or seven years ago,” Mander told the BBC. “After day one, we had three left. At the end of day three with these women, only three had pulled off.”
But did he train the women differently? If anything, he trained them harder. As Mander explained to the Guardian,
“Thirty-six women started our training, modeled on our special-forces training, and we pushed them hard, much harder than any training we do with men.”
So what was these women’s secret?
Building Communities, Building Hope
The warrior women of the Akashinga Initiative were forged in the fires of a hard life. Several are domestic abuse survivors. Many are single mothers. All of them are filled with purpose and determination — to make a life for themselves, to be able to afford to send their children to school, and to protect Zimbabwe’s elephants.
In addition to stopping poaching, the Akashinga women are setting an example for their community. Like Mander, the Akashinga women are vegan. Not only are they arresting poachers, but they’re showing their communities that you don’t need to eat bush meat — or any meat — to survive. Some poached animals are sold to restaurants and individuals as bush meat.
And they’re showing their communities that women are stronger and more capable than anyone might have imagined. Conservationist Victor Muposhi told the Guardian,
“It is happening right in the middle of nowhere in the Zambezi Valley, and it is part of a greater movement. We are going to develop it to become one of the best models of conservation of wildlife based on women’s empowerment.”
How You Can Help
You can help the International Anti-Poaching Foundation by helping to raise funds. You can also take advantage of the teaching materials at their website. And if you’re feeling ambitious, you can even visit their camp for a working vacation! Check out the IAPF website for more information.
Learn more about the program in the BBC video below.