Africa’s first armed, all-women anti-poaching unit is changing the way that animals are protected – and arresting poachers without firing a single shot.

Kelly Lyee Chigumbura was 17 years old when, she says, she was raped near her family’s home in Zimbabwe’s Lower Zambezi Valley. After realising she was pregnant with her rapist’s child, Chigumbura dropped out of school and put aside her dream of becoming a nurse. “My goals had been shattered,” she says. “It was like I couldn’t do anything more with my life.”

Chigumbura was jobless, with no skills and no prospects. Cultural norms among the Shona dictate that, should a mother lack the resources to take care of her child, it’s given to the father’s parents. So against Chigumbura’s wishes, the rapist’s mother took the baby – a little girl Chigumbura named Yearn Cleopatra – to raise as her own. Chigumbura was not even permitted to visit her daughter. When she came by, the grandmother would spin stories to shoo her away, telling her that her baby was in Mozambique, for example.

“Everything was misery,” Chigumbura says with a sigh.

It went on like this for three years, until one day, when Chigumbura was 20, the village head pulled her aside. An Australian named Damien Mander was looking for female recruits to become wildlife rangers, and the village head thought Chigumbura was an excellent candidate. If selected, she would be responsible for patrolling and protecting the nearby Phundundu Wildlife Park: a 115 square mile former trophy hunting area that is part of a larger ecosystem home to some 11,000 elephants.

Chigumbura jumped at the opportunity. After an excruciating three day-long military-style try-out, she was invited to become part of the new force. Mander asked her and the 16 other women – many of whom also came from backgrounds of abuse – to come up with a name for their unit. They settled on Akashinga, ‘the Brave Ones’ in Shona.

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Chigumbura now spends her days protecting her country’s most vulnerable citizens: the wildlife. “When I manage to stop poachers, I feel accomplished,” she says. “I want to spend my whole life here on this job, arresting poachers and protecting animals.” What’s more, joining Akashinga has given her confidence and autonomy – and the chance to win back custody of her daughter. Her colleagues have undergone similar transformations.

“The change in them, the shift, is unbelievable,” says Alistair Lyne, a filmmaker who is documenting the project. “Whereas before they were ashamed in a way, now they have a spirit to them. They’re walking on air.”

As far as Mander knows, Phundundu is the first nature reserve in the world to be managed and protected by an all-women ranger unit. Though women rarely serve as rangers in Africa, Mander believes that putting the well-being of wildlife in their expertly trained hands could usher in a new way of carrying out conservation – one that is far less violent and which empowers women and improves communities in the process.

If you educate a man, you educate an individual, but if you educate a woman, you educate a nation – Damien Mander

“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’,” Mander says. “We’re seeing increasing evidence that empowering women is one of the greatest forces of change in the world today.”

By 2030, he hopes to see the Akashinga model expanded and adopted by others to employ some 4,500 female rangers watching more than 96,500 square miles (250,000 sq km) of former hunting blocks across the continent.

Reaching this goal will likely be an uphill battle, however. Since launching the project, critics have questioned the sensibility of arming women and sending them into the bush on patrols, and some accuse the project of being little more than a media stunt. Mander dismisses such claims as sexism and cynicism and points to evidence that, at least so far, Akashinga is working. He sees no reason why similar successes cannot be realised in many other places throughout Africa.

At the very best, I think women will change conservation forever – Mander

“At the very least, with this model we have twice as many people to choose from for employing as rangers,” he says. “At the very best, I think women will change conservation forever.”

Green ceiling

Mander is a commanding presence, heavily tattooed and standing at 6’3” (190cm). Like many fighting on the frontlines of Africa’s poaching crisis, he comes from a military background. After beginning his career as an Australian Royal Navy Clearance Diver, from 2003 to 2005 he worked as a special operations sniper in the Tactical Assault Group East, an elite counter-terrorism unit in the Australian Defence Force. It was a job he calls “the ultimate boys’ club”.

“In the Special Forces we had never had women or wanted women,” he says. “We prided ourselves on being the only male unit in the military.”

Mander went on to serve in the private sector in Iraq. At 27, he became a project manager at the Iraq Special Police Training Academy. The role brought cushy pay but took a heavy mental toll. With just six weeks to train new recruits, the men Mander sent to the frontline would inevitably do one of three things: desert, join the militia or get killed. At the time, though, “I was too young and inexperienced to ask the right questions about the wrong practices,” Mander says. After leaving Iraq in 2008, he spent a year bouncing around South America, feeling increasingly dissatisfied with his life.

In seven years elephant populations plummeted by 30% across the continent, largely due to poaching

A stint in Southern Africa opened his eyes to the escalating plight of elephants and rhinos. Following a nearly two-decade respite, elephants were being slaughtered once again for the illegal ivory trade. The next seven years saw their populations plummet by 30% across the continent, largely due to poaching. Rhinos, meanwhile, were being targeted for their horns, with more than 7,000 killed in a decade

Mander was enraged by what he saw. He also was inspired. Realising his particular skillset could be put to use defending wildlife, he decided to dedicate himself entirely to this new mission. “Nature gave me a second chance – an opportunity to reengineer myself for a higher calling,” he says. He sold his homes in Australia and used the proceeds and his savings to create the International Anti-Poaching Foundation, a non-profit organisation that brought a militarised, special operations-approach to wildlife protection. He worked along the Mozambican border of Kruger National Park in South Africa – the epicentre of the so-called rhino war – and ran a unit in Victoria Falls National Park in Zimbabwe. Incursions into Kruger from Mozambique significantly declined under his watch, and for the eight years his group operated in Victoria Falls, the park did not lose a single rhino – the only such example in Zimbabwe over that period. 

But while he and his men were able to keep poaching at bay in the areas they patrolled, Mander was beginning to realise that what he provided was only a temporary Band-Aid rather than a true remedy. Evidence was building that a ‘war on poaching’ approach does not work for conserving wildlife long-term. Instead, community buy-in is key. “You cannot sustain an ongoing offensive against the local population as a means of conservation,” Mander says. “The long-term solution depends on winning the hearts and minds of the community.”

By 2015, Mander was backing off of the seek-and-destroy approach to protecting wildlife and was searching for a new solution. He hoped to find a model that would engage communities and incentivise them to support conservation, but that would not be dependent on tourism or trophy hunting for funding. Tourism ebbs and flows with current events and is too a fickle an industry to achieve the type of steady, long-term conservation Mander hoped for. More importantly, vast areas of Africa lack the dynamic scenery, straight-forward logistics and creature comforts needed to reap tourism’s benefits.

Trophy hunting, on the other hand, attracts a hardier crowd. But it comes with its own slew of problems and, according to many involved, is an industry in decline. As a vegan and animal rights advocate, Mander was also specifically looking for an answer that would not involve killing animals – and could even serve as a replacement for hunting.

While mulling over all of this, Mander happened to stumbled on an article in the New York Times about women graduating from the US Army’s elite ranger school. If women could serve as military rangers, he realized, why couldn’t they serve as wildlife rangers on the front lines in Africa?

They could also be the funding solution he was looking for. Wildlife-allocated dollars are sparse and heavily competed over, but a programme with women at the helm could access funds dedicated to women’s empowerment – which are at least 2.5 times greater than those available for conservation, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

A World Wildlife Fund survey of 570 rangers across 12 African countries found that just 19% were women

The idea seemed obvious in its simplicity, but it was nearly without precedent. Some 20,000 to 25,000 rangers work across Africa and it’s a vastly male-dominated field, according to Sean Willmore, founder and managing director of the Thin Green Line Foundation, a non-profit organisation that supports rangers. While no definitive statistics exist on the number of women who professionally protect wildlife in Africa, a World Wildlife Fund survey of 570 rangers across 12 African countries found that just 19% were women.

This is not the case worldwide. Women routinely serve as rangers in North and South America, Europe and Australia, Willmore says, but African cultures tend to assign the role of protector – never mind armed protector – exclusively to men.

Immediately, Mander faced pushback from other conservationists.

“We really have to ask ourselves, how much of this is just about the marketability of cool, black GI Janes who come from downtrodden communities in a war-torn country where wildlife is dying?” says Craig Spencer, founder and manager of the Black Mamba Anti-Poaching Unit in South Africa, the continent’s first all-women ranger team. Unlike the Akashinga rangers, the Black Mambas are unarmed: “placing guns in the hands of a young woman makes her incredibly vulnerable”, Spencer says.

Instead of carrying firearms, Spencer continues, women rangers should play to their strengths by focusing on community-building and education. “Women are the single biggest untapped resource in Sub-Saharan Africa, but trying to make them into men, I think, is self-destructive,” he says. “We need an armed component, sure, but we need to start moving more and more of our resources into communities, and the best people for that are women.”

Mander counters that it’s not an either-or choice: women can simultaneously be armed and act as custodians for wildlife and communities. Sending them out on patrol without a means for defence, he adds, would be irresponsible.

“It’s very unfortunate that rangers are required to carry guns to protect animals,” he says. “But we need to be willing to give them all the training and tools they need to be best equipped to handle whatever situation they may face.”

Spencer isn’t the only with misgivings, though, and convincing others to give the programme a chance initially proved challenging.

For months, Mander searched in vain for a trial site, first in South Africa and then in Zimbabwe. Despite offering to cover all costs and absorb all risks, the men he approached turned him down. “There were hollow excuses, but the reality was they didn’t want women doing a man’s job,” Mander says.

Finally, he found a taker: the manager of an abandoned trophy-hunting block who was eager enough for a solution to take the risk. 

Trial stage 

The gently rolling hills and rocky outcrops of the Lower Zambezi Valley lie three hours northwest of Harare down a single-lane highway bound for Zambia. The region’s 11,000 elephants roam across two national parks and a patchwork mosaic of tourism and hunting reserves, unencumbered by fences or borders. As Mander says, “it’s an open, wild ecosystem –proper Africa.”

Zimbabwe is home to the world’s second-largest population of elephants, and the Lower Zambezi Valley is one of the country’s four strongholds. “People often think we’re a basket case because of all our historic challenges, but it’s worth the world knowing that, in spite of all the challenges here, the national parks – often with the support of locally dedicated non-governmental organisations – have managed to contain poaching,” says Richard Maasdorp, a private conservation management consultant in Harare.

National parks are further shielded from poaching by trophy hunting blocks, which often form buffer zones between those strictly protected areas and surrounding communities. But keeping the Lower Zambezi Valley’s hunting zones free from poaching is becoming more challenging. The last 16 years have seen some 8,000 elephants poached across the region, and bushmeat hunting is also on the rise. Protection requires money, and foreign visitors, a primary source for funding, have become devastatingly scarce.

“Commercially, we are dead,” says Jan Stander, director of Phundundu Wildlife Park, the former hunting block where Akashinga now operates. Like many other hunters in the area, Stander says his business collapsed following the US ban on elephant trophy imports from Zimbabwe in 2014. “Our area went from viable to non-viable,” he says. “We lost hundreds of thousands of dollars as an industry.” 

With nothing left to lose, Stander invited the International Anti-Poaching Foundation to set up shop in Phundundu and helped negotiate a lease for the next 46 years. After building a basic tented camp, Mander and his colleagues put word out to 29 surrounding villages that the program was recruiting. Specifically, they were looking for women aged 18 to 35 who were victims of sexual assault or domestic violence; who were single mothers or abandoned wives; or who were Aids orphans.

They were looking, in other words, for women who could most benefit from a new life.

Nearly 90 women turned up for pre-selection, which included extensive interviews about their backgrounds. “These weren’t victims of circumstance, these were victims of men,” Mander says. Thirty-seven women progressed to the three-day try out, which entailed three days of “exposing them to the four pillars of misery”, Mander explains: being “hungry, tired, cold and wet.” Modelled after special forces selection, the exhausted women were challenged with various endurance and team building trials, such as packing up a 200-pound (90kg) tent, dragging it up a mountain with their legs tied together, and then reassembling it.

The selection [process] wasn’t easy, but I didn’t think about quitting – Future Sibanda

Still, only three women dropped out – an astonishing rate, considering that the majority of male ranger recruits he worked with in the past typically quit in the first days of try-outs. As Future Sibanda, an Akashinga ranger and divorced mother of two, says, “The selection wasn’t easy, but I didn’t think about quitting.”

Mander, who has “built a career across three continents by bringing fairly hardened men to the point of breaking”, was shocked by the grit of Sibanda and the other recruits. The women worked diligently and quietly, often with a smile on their faces. “The distance a person puts between suffering and breaking is what defines character, and these women had it,” he says. He selected the top candidates to join the programme and began formal training.

The distance a person puts between suffering and breaking is what defines character, and these women had it – Mander 

The women’s elation was dampened, however, by the pushback many of them faced from the men in their communities. “The men told me it’s difficult for a woman to patrol in the bush, and that this job is meant just for them,” Sibanda says. “It was so discouraging.” Eventually, though, she realised “it was only a matter of jealousy”: she could more than do the job. 

Mander recruited a team of instructors. Many had extensive combat and training experience, but had only ever worked with men before.

“I was sceptical whether women would be up to the physical part of the job, and also worried that, since they all came from within the community, that would open them up to intimidation, bullying and repercussions,” says Leon Varley, a safari operator and war veteran who has run wildlife areas in the past. But after joining the women on rugged 12-mile (20km) patrols and training them in wilderness survival (much of which they already knew), “I didn’t have any complaints at all”, Varley says.

The hard work paid off. Last October, surrounded by a crowd of 2,000, the women proudly walked across the football pitch of a local high school to officially graduate as rangers.

Success story

Abigail Malzanyaire holds up a clenched fist and then lowers her palm, wordlessly instructing the rangers behind her to freeze and crouch in the waist-high grass. At dawn, she and her three colleagues saw recently made lion tracks. They have since encountered fresh droppings all of shapes and sizes, from coffee bean-like tinklings of elands to robust heaps left by zebras. Now, Malzanyaire is silently checking a downhill water hole – one of the last remaining in the parched, dry season park – for elephants. But the only signs of those giants today are frisbee-sized footprints in the mud… and more droppings.

It is an unusually quiet morning for the Akashinga rangers, who typically encounter wildlife on every patrol – a significant increase compared to past patrols, which reported sightings about once a week.

As the wildlife has seemingly returned to Phundundu, Mander also has noticed a thought-provoking trend: based on ranger reports, dangerous species like buffalo and elephant seem to behave less aggressively towards the women than the former male rangers. Mander brought this observation to Victor Muposhi, an ecologist at Chinhoyi University, who hopes to test it in the field and has meanwhile developed a working hypothesis. “Animals are very smart and able to differentiate between something that poses danger to them and something that does not,” Muposhi says. “Men are considered a threat because these animals know that most poachers are men.”

I want my kids to have the opportunity to see animals, not only in photos and books – Sibanda

Seeing and protecting the park’s species are many of the ranger’s favourite part of the job, including Sibanda’s. “Wildlife has the right to live,” she says. “I want my kids to have the opportunity to see animals, not only in photos and books, but alive and in nature.”

Since October 2017, she and her colleagues have made or contributed to 72 arrests without firing a single shot.

Mander notes that there also have so far been no hints of corruption – the creeping bane of conservation. “In Africa, if you can remove corruption from the equation, you’re halfway home,” he says.

Since October 2017, the rangers have made or contributed to 72 arrests without firing a single shot

Varley adds that he has gone from a 90% sceptic to a 90% believer in the programme – and that the last 10% comes down to the fact that the rangers have yet to be caught up in an armed conflict. “That’ll happen at some stage, and if they handle that, I’ll be at 100%,” he says. That’s not to say they haven’t been caught up in physical altercations, but they have so far managed to resolve conflicts using de-escalation techniques and non-lethal force, strategies that Varley believes come naturally to them. “We men tend to go in guns blazing, all aggression and machismo, but they are different,” he says. “They have empathy.” 

No amount of training and empathy can completely eliminate risk, however. Globally, the last decade has seen more than 1,000 rangers killed on the job, including by poachers, animals and accidents. In March 2018, the Akashinga women faced their first tragedy when two rangers and a male trainer leading them drowned while crossing a river.

The team was shaken to the core. “They thought everyone might die,” says Mervis Chiware, a counsellor and lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe who Mander recruited to help the rangers overcome their fear and grief. “I could see they were no longer committed and they weren’t themselves,” Chiware says. “I helped them see that misfortune sometimes happens and that it was misjudgement that contributed to the accident.”

The rangers emerged even more committed to the job, and Chiware – a survivor of abuse herself – now regularly helps them with personal issues, including relationships, sexual health and overcoming past trauma. “I tell them that building one’s person is very important, because the moment you become self-reliant, with your own job, the enables you to make decisions for yourself,” she says. “It gives you the power to get out of abusive relationships.”

Life for many of the Akashinga women now means the ability to buy property, build a house, send their children to school, get a driver’s licence, finish high school, enrol in college and thoroughly provide for their families. “When you employ men – not all men, but some – they can be irresponsible with money, despite the fact that they have kids,” Chiware says. “But with women, once they get money, in most cases they support their kids.”

Following Mander’s example, many of the women have adopted a vegan lifestyle at home, and none drink. They enjoy up to two weeks off per month – significantly more than the average ranger – and so have plenty of time to spend with their families. They also sometimes pay visits to local schools, Mander says, where they are “mobbed like rock stars” and speak to classrooms about the importance of protecting wildlife.

This could be a particularly effective strategy of bringing about change, according to James Danoff-Burg, director of conservation at the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens in Palm Desert, California. Earlier this year, Danoff-Burg conducted in-depth interviews with 120 residents in four South African communities where most of the Black Mambas live. In the village where the Mambas conduct an educational programme for children, two-thirds of adult interviewees had heard of the women and sang their praises. “People we spoke to there said, ‘Yes, the Mambas do really good stuff and are important for helping to conserve our wildlife’,” Danoff-Burg says. “Through kids, the Mambas are influencing the thoughts of the community.” 

While Akashinga’s direct effects on the community have yet to be measured, 62 cents of every dollar the International Anti-Poaching Foundation spends goes back to the community. In addition to paying the women’s salaries, funds have been invested in a dam, greenhouse and local goods and labour. Akashinga also gives rewards to community members who assist in an arrest or help recover ivory or illegal weapons.

Despite the promise, it is still too early to make pronouncements about Akashinga’s long-term viability in Zimbabwe, let alone whether programmes like it can be replicated across Africa. But Mander and his colleagues are confident. “Why would this programme not have long-term viability, but other male units would?” he says. “The economics of the model alone make it far more replicable than many other forms of conservation – and that’s before we take the actual results into account.”

Plans are already in motion to roll out a similar model in Segera, a conservancy in Kenya, and to expand the Lower Zambezi Valley programme. Zimbabwe’s new president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, has met with some of the Akashinga women and voiced his support, and his daughter, Tariro, even joined the rangers on multiple occasions to train, patrol and engage with communities.

“One thing that I am sure of is that Akashinga has brought a new dimension to conservation and law enforcement in Zimbabwe,” Muposhi says. “Women are equally as good as men – and could be even better.” 

Perhaps most importantly, for the women of both Akashinga and the Black Mambas, becoming a ranger has been life-altering. “The message that came out of the Mamba interviews is one of incredible female empowerment,” Danoff-Burg says. “It’s a culturally transformative experience for the women, for their families and for the people who interact with them.

That has certainly been the case for Kelly Lyee Chigumbura. In September 2018 – two years since last seeing her daughter – Chigumbura was awarded custody of her daughter. “Since becoming employed as a ranger, I’m now able to take care of my child,” she says. “I can go back to high school and I can have a life as an experienced professional.” 

“I see myself as a better person.”

Rachel Nuwer is the author of Poached: Inside the dark world of wildlife trafficking.

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