Akashinga: Protecting the Lower Zambezi with All-female Anti-Poaching Units

Photo by Brent Stirton

Trophy hunting areas make up a staggering one-sixth of all landmass across participating countries in Africa. However, trophy hunting is becoming less economically viable for local communities due to public perception, activism, constraints on hunting specific iconic species, import restrictions on trophies and reduced wildlife populations. As a consequence, many of these areas and their neighboring communities no longer receive sufficient benefits from hunting to motivate conservation.

Whilst the international pressure to reduce trophy hunting intensifies, there has been no proven scalable model as a workable alternative. With this downturn, the creation of economically viable and self-sustaining protected areas is not possible without a novel approach. In early 2017, the International Anti-Poaching Foundation (IAPF) was approached to address these problems in the Zimbabwe’s Lower Zambezi ecosystem where elephant numbers in the region had declined by 40% since 2001. 

Traditionally in conservation, men take most front-line positions even though law enforcement and conflict resolution around the world has increasingly evolved to include women in key roles. Inspired by the power of women and driven by the need for evolution in the conservation industry, the IAPF set out to deploy an all women team to restore and manage a reserve that was historically used for elephant hunting. This formed the Akashinga model.

Akashinga (the Brave Ones) is a community-driven conservation model, empowering disadvantaged women to restore and manage a network of wilderness areas as an alternative to trophy hunting. Akashinga’s “beta team” was formed to protect the Phundundu Reserve, an area Zimbabwe’s wilderness that, until recently had been patrolled by trophy hunting outfitters as they protect their permitted hunting areas from poachers. Selection was opened exclusively to unemployed single mothers, abandoned wives, sex workers, victims of sexual and physical abuse, wives of poachers in prison, widows and orphans. By doing so, opportunity was created for the most vulnerable women in rural society. 

Photo by Brent Stirton

The women who have graduated into this program received the same law enforcement training and fulfill the same role as a male ranger, learning skills such as leadership, unarmed combat, patrolling, camouflage and concealment, first aid, dangerous wildlife awareness, democratic policing, search and arrest, human rights, crime scene preservation, crisis management, firearm safety and use, information gathering and conservation ethics. Trained by experts in conservation and law enforcement, their future is now interwoven with the wilderness they protect – just as the fate of humanity is inseparable from our willingness to conserve biodiversity.

From employment to goods and services, Akashinga invests at least 72% of operating costs directly back into the hands of local villagers. Additionally, a woman with a salary in rural areas invests up to three times more than a man into their family and household. These factors ensure an equal or better financial return and economic impact for the area than what trophy hunting provided. In turn, protecting the area and regulating access to the natural resources allows local communities to have the benefits of the land that they traditionally held.

Through these brave rangers, Akashinga is working to replace trophy hunting as an area management tool for conservation in Africa. LDF’s support of IAPF will expand the Akashinga program into the Nyadzo Preserve (adjacent to Phundundu). The Nyadzo deployment will extend the benefits of the deployment by nearly 130,000 acres. In total, IAPF aims to recruit a total of 2000 women, protecting a network spanning 30 million acres of African wilderness and biodiversity by 2030 –wilderness reclaimed from trophy hunting and run by women.

Through collaborative partnerships, we support innovative projects that protect vulnerable wildlife from extinction, while restoring balance to threatened ecosystems and communities. Our work is divided into six main program areas – Wildlands Conservation, Oceans Conservation, Climate Change, Indigenous Rights, Transforming California, and Innovative Solutions.

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