By Kate Bartlett
A group of single mothers and victims of domestic violence have found a new lease on life as armed and fiercely dedicated anti-poaching rangers on a trophy hunting ground turned conservation area in Zimbabwe’s lower Zambezi region.
Phundundu wildlife area, Zimbabwe – armed with semi-automatic rifles, the khaki-clad rangers patrol through the long brittle grasses of the African savanna, past flat-topped trees turning autumnal red and delicate piles of balancing rocks.
Their leader stops, signals silently and bends down to examine tracks in the rust-coloured Zimbabwean dirt – jackal – before the team continues on their hunt for a different kind of predator, humans.
It’s a scene that you would see repeated by anti-poaching teams in game reserves and conservation areas across the country, with one key difference, all these rangers are women.
Nyaradzo Hoto’s ex-husband was violently abusive, but today the 25-year-old has a new, empowered lease on life – as a gun-toting member of Zimbabwe’s first all-female anti-poaching unit, ‘Akashinga’ or ‘The Brave Ones.’
“He was so abusive, he was violent towards me,” Hoto says of her ex.
“I cannot imagine living with him any more. My job as a ranger has made me become an independent woman.”
All the women in Akashinga come from disadvantaged backgrounds in rural villages near the 30,000, hectare conservation area they now protect , among them widows, sexual assault survivors, abandoned mothers and battered wives.
Against the odds in Zimbabwe’s patriarchal society, as well as the men’s club that is armed conservation in Africa, the women have proved themselves incorruptible and fearless, says Damien Mander, the strapping, Australian who set up the project.
“Women are the future of conservation,” says Mander, who was in Australia’s special forces and saw several tours of Iraq and Afghanistan before founding Akashinga less than a year ago.
Mander started his organisation, the International Anti-Poaching Foundation, of which Akashinga is a part, after leaving the army, when, he says, he felt a need to do something other than to lose himself in drugs.
“These are women who were treated like dirt, they were mostly victims of men. To see them now they’re leaders,” he says. “The biggest component is that we haven’t seen corruption in these women.”
The women, equipped with guns, handcuffs and knives, patrol on foot through the conservation area which is home to four of Africa’s big five - everything but the rhino.
The lower Zambezi region where Phundundu is located is home to one of the world’s largest populations of elephants, about 11,000, but poaching has taken a serious toll, as there were about 20,000 in 2002, Mander says.
Before Mander recruited the rangers from the surrounding villages, none of the women had ever fired a gun and knew little about conservation.
“I can tell you now, those women got no concessions,” Mander says of their weapons, survival, unarmed combat and first aid training.
In the nine months the programme has been running, the women have made 51 arrests, most of which have resulted in prosecutions. In the last six weeks alone, they arrested seven poachers, all of whom were successfully prosecuted, Mander says, with the maximum sentence among them nine years.
In one case, he recounts, they found human tracks and followed a group of three poachers for 20 kilometres. They arrested one and with information from him subsequently caught the two others, ivory poachers who had been using cyanide to kill elephants by poisoning their waterholes.
So far the rangers have not had to use lethal force. The fact that they are also members of the community surrounding the conservation area means they often get tip-offs to conduct sting operations that snag the middlemen rather than lowly poachers.
The conservation area where Akashinga operates, not far from the popular tourist destination Mana Pools National Park, is a former trophy hunting zone, an activity that used to bring a lot of money into the community but has greatly declined due to global pressure.
The idea behind the new project is to fill the gap trophy hunting left by making the female rangers breadwinners. Mander says the project puts more than 60 per cent of what it makes back into the local economy. His foundation receives funding from other NGOs and private donors, he adds.
The rangers are also a buffer between the human settlements they come from and the fenceless reserve. Human and animal conflict over land and food has long been a problem in many parts of Africa, with animals encroaching on villagers’ fields and eating their crops, and humans taking revenge through poaching or poisoning.
“We found a lioness caught in a snare. Its stomach was caught and as it tried to move away it tightened,” recalls Thelma Chademana, Akashinga’s Zimbabwean project manager. The rangers darted the feline, patched her up and released her back into the wild.
Most of the rangers have children and are the sole breadwinners, also supporting their extended families. Ranger Primrose, 22, cuddles her young daughter on a visit home, standing outside the mud hut her family lives in.
Around her, shaggy goats and scrawny chickens peck at garbage, the Akashinga team are all vegans now because of their love of animals, a cultural abnormality in meat-loving Zimbabwe. Nearby a group of men play a spirited game of soccer in the dust. When she first applied to join the rangers, these village men laughed at her, but now, Primrose says, they respect her.
The women, who get counselling sessions several times a month to overcome their traumas, have found a new pride with their skills, paychecks and independence.
“My daughter’s proud of me,” says ranger Hoto. “I can stand on my own two feet.” – DPA
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