Zim­babwe’s women-only rangers fight­ing poach­ing

Zim­babwe’s women-only rangers fight­ing poach­ing

Muscat Daily - - FRONT PAGE -

Chiyevedzo Mutero was one of dozens com­pet­ing in the re­mote Zim­bab­wean bush to join the all-fe­male anti-poach­ing Akashinga rangers when she broke her fin­ger.

She didn’t con­sider quit­ting - she even smiled as her fin­ger was ban­daged, be­fore re­turn­ing to the bru­tal mil­i­tary-style train­ing.

“I’m happy, that’s why I am not cry­ing. I’m try­ing to be an Akashinga girl,” the 22 year old said.

The rangers, armed and dressed in khaki com­bat gear, track and ar­rest poach­ers in five re­serves, all for­mer tro­phy hunt­ing ar­eas, en­com­pass­ing 4,000sq km near the Zam­bian bor­der in north­ern Zim­babwe.

If re­cruited, Chiyevedzo would be­come one of an elite few - out of 500 ap­pli­cants, only 80 will make it into the ranks of the Akashinga, or ‘brave ones’ in lo­cal di­alect.

Be­ing brave will cer­tainly count in her job of help­ing to pro­tect the wildlife against poach­ers who are of­ten heav­ily armed.

But all the women are also ‘sur­vivors’, se­lected for the ranger re­cruit­ment pro­gramme for hav­ing over­come ad­ver­sity, of­ten abuse, in their past.

Chiyevedzo mar­ried young and moved to South Africa with her hus­band and daugh­ter, where she was phys­i­cally abused by her mother-in-law.

She re­turned to ru­ral Zim­babwe to raise her daugh­ter alone and broke as her hus­band re­fused to send money.

“But now I am here to em­power my­self to take care of my child,” she said, proudly talk­ing of the im­por­tance of the coun­try’s wildlife and its con­ser­va­tion.

Chiyevedzo made it into the last 160 po­ten­tial re­cruits, who faced a se­ries of gru­elling tests of their phys­i­cal and men­tal strength in the Phun­dundu Wildlife Area.

Over sev­eral days, the women raced un­der the beat­ing sun, wres­tled each other and even lifted a gi­ant tree trunk over their heads.

Only the tough­est make the cut.

‘The tough­est’

Damien Man­der, 39, a for­mer mil­i­tary sniper in the Aus­tralian army who also worked in the pri­vate se­cu­rity sec­tor in Iraq, started the pro­gramme in 2017 as part of the non-profit In­ter­na­tional An­tiPoach­ing Foun­da­tion that he founded.

“We were try­ing to cre­ate an op­por­tu­nity for the most marginalis­ed women in some of the tough­est re­gions, in one of the poor­est coun­tries on the con­ti­nent,” he said.

“They are all sur­vivors of se­ri­ous sex­ual as­sault, do­mes­tic vi­o­lence, AIDS or­phans, sin­gle moth­ers, aban­doned wives.

“We didn’t want great CVs, ac­tu­ally we wanted scrap­pers. Peo­ple that knew what it was like to have to fight to sur­vive, and that’s ex­actly what we got,” he told AFP.

“What we didn’t re­alise is we were get­ting the tough­est.”

Hard­ships faced by the women in ru­ral Zim­babwe also steel them for life on the front­line against poach­ing, says one of the train­ers Paul Wil­son, also a for­mer sol­dier. “These guys are used to walk­ing a long way with a 20lt bucket of wa­ter on their head, spend­ing all day dig­ging or hoe­ing in the field, car­ry­ing large amounts of fire­wood... these girls know how to work,” he said.

More than ‘bi­ceps and bul­lets’

Man­der said that his time in Iraq had helped him un­der­stand that ‘law en­force­ment isn’t about bi­ceps and bul­lets’.

It is more about es­tab­lish­ing re­la­tion­ships and long-term ties with com­mu­ni­ties, he said, adding the women also had the abil­ity ‘to nat­u­rally de-es­ca­late ten­sion’.

All Akashinga rangers come from vil­lages near the area they pa­trol, so they can work with the lo­cals and have a vested in­ter­est.

“We have gone from hav­ing an­tipoach­ing units fight­ing against the com­mu­nity, to hav­ing a com­mu­nity fight for what we be­lieve in,” Man­der said.

The women rangers plough up to 90 per cent of their earn­ings into their fam­i­lies and lo­cal com­mu­nity, com­pared to 30 to 40 per cent for men, he added.

“The big­gest thing that we’ve seen is we haven’t had a sin­gle in­ci­dence of cor­rup­tion with women,” he said.

‘In­creas­ingly mil­i­tarised’

It has been work­ing. Be­fore the Akashinga started pa­trolling the area, around 8,000 ele­phants were killed there over 16 years.

Since they ar­rived two years ago, ele­phant poach­ing has dropped 80 per cent, ac­cord­ing to the In­ter­na­tional An­tiPoach­ing Foun­da­tion.

The women have made 115 ar­rests - with­out them fir­ing a sin­gle shot. But it is dan­ger­ous work.

“Con­ser­va­tion is be­com­ing in­creas­ingly mil­i­tarised,” Man­der said.

“More and more poach­ers are com­ing in here with weapons and they are will­ing to kill ele­phants and the peo­ple that are pro­tect­ing them.”

Man­der said that he hopes to have ‘a small army of 1,000 women’ pro­tect­ing 20 re­serves by 2025.

Lives trans­formed

Ranger Ju­liana Mu­rumbi, a mem­ber of the first Akashinga class, said that she had held her own against men dur­ing spe­cialised train­ing to be­come an in­struc­tor ear­lier this year.

“I man­aged to chal­lenge the men in phys­i­cal train­ing, in the long run, the push-ups, the sit-ups, the drags,” she said.

“So I think we are just the same be­cause what they can do, I can do.”

Nyaradzo Aux­ilia, an­other ranger, said that the pro­gramme was ‘to­tally trans­form­ing the stan­dard of life of all women’ in­volved, in­clud­ing her­self.

“My hus­band used to abuse me. I can just sim­ply say he was an abu­sive man. He was very vi­o­lent to me,” the 27 year old said.

She fled with her child, and is now one of many Akashinga able to sup­port them­selves.

The rangers earn be­tween US$300 and US$1,200 a month, de­pend­ing on their role.

“They can now stand on their own. They can now not de­pend on some­one else - they can move on with­out be­ing abused or fac­ing that cru­elty from the men,” she said.

We were cre­at­ing an op­por­tu­nity for the most marginalis­ed women in some of the tough­est re­gions Damien Man­der

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