The Sunday Mail
The lower Zambezi Valley is a wildlife poacher’s paradise.
The expansive game reserve, one of Africa’s last great wildernesses, is home to dozens of animal species.
Professor Victor Muposhi, a conservation biologist at Chinhoyi University of Technology, estimates that the reserve has lost a staggering 11 000 elephants over the last 10 years.
Thousands of other species have also met their fate at the hands of poachers, a situation that has left conservationists in a monumental dilemma.
Poaching here is a clear and present danger, not only for the wildlife but also for those tasked with protecting it.
But the tide may soon be turning against poaching syndicates that have wreaked havoc in this pristine region.
Edzai Malunga is a 32-year-old single mother of four, a trained game ranger and expert arms handler.
Just over a year ago she was selling household wares at a local shopping centre, barely able to make ends meet. Hers was a life of living by the day.
Back then she had very little or no knowledge, let alone care, about the importance of wildlife conservation and how it can be harnessed for the benefit of her community. She was just an average rural woman living near a game reserve.
In August 2017 all this changed.
She heard about the recruitment of game rangers that was being conducted in the area. Out of chance she decided to try out.
After a gruelling six weeks of practical and theoretical training, she graduated as a full-time ranger.
Makunga is now part of an elite all-female anti-poaching group – Akashinga – that is operating around the borders of Charara Game Reserve.
The project, the first of its kind in the world, which marries wildlife conservation and women empowerment is changing lives for previously disadvantaged women living around Hurungwe.
Already she is reaping huge dividends from joining Akashinga and so is her family and community at large.
“I joined in August last year for the initial training. The reason I joined was because I have a really large family to take care of and I was failing to do so,” Malunga said recently.
“As a single mother, I needed the income to take care of my four children, the oldest who is only 14 years of age. I used to sell wares but I was failing to adequately meet the demands of my growing children and myself.
“But since I joined things have changed for the better, right now I have bought myself a housing stand with the money I earn from working as a ranger and I will soon start building my house. Joining Akashinga has really changed my life.”
The Akashinga initiative is a brainchild of the International Anti-Poaching Foundation (IAPF) and is being run by ex-Australian military sniper Damien Mander.
The programme is a community-driven conservation model that is empowering disadvantaged women to restore and manage a network of wilderness areas as an alternative to trophy hunting.
The initiative employs marginalised women from rural communities, educates and trains them to be rangers and biodiversity managers. They are tasked with protecting the large landscapes previously reserved for and financed by trophy hunting.
The project seeks to marry wildlife conservation to women empowerment.
To date 16 local women are gainfully employed as rangers and more will soon be incorporated into the programme.
Akashinga spends nearly $6 000 per individual ranger annually and the bulk of that is directed back into the community.
Research shows that a woman with a salary in rural Africa invests up to three times more than a male into their family.
Around 500 families living in areas surrounding Charara game reserve are now direct beneficiaries of the programme with 250 school-going children also directly benefiting from the project. Further, 347 333 hectares of land is under protection under the Akashinga initiative.
Within the first six weeks of operation, the team of female rangers had accounted for eight suspected poachers – a testament to their effectiveness.
Tariro Mnangagwa, who is President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s daughter, is also a part of the Akashinga initiative and has been supporting the programme since late last year. In December she facilitated a meet-and-greet for the women with the President in Harare.
She said the programme had brought hope to the local community and was empowering previously disadvantaged women.
She said: “These women are all drawn from this area. What we have seen is that with other conservation models what normally happens is that rangers are brought from outside the community, which, in turn, antagonises the community. It takes a while for the community to receive the rangers because they are taking potential jobs from the community. It takes them a while to build support with the community.
“So what Akashinga has done is that using women within the community is a rapid model since they already have support with the community. We found that it is critical to pick the women from the community because that way it breeds a sense of ownership to conservation.
“I met these ladies in early December (and I) got to see the bigger picture of what they are doing and also heard their stories which are remarkable. There is one who is 21 years-old who is now a land owner and has a stable income.
“These are women some of whom have been abused and some are single parents but now they have been empowered. Because they are part of the community there has definitely been more visibility of rangers because they have been working in both the community and the reserve. There is a lot more awareness about conservation.”
Armed with her black metal of the AR-15 rifle held firmly with both hands, Future Sibanda navigates her way through a vast thicket and on the lookout for animal or human foot prints.
She is part of a team of four women, who include Tariro, that are on patrol duty. The team skilfully navigates through the vast woodland looking for the slightest signs of both human and animal presence.
The team communicates only through hand signals in case they might alert poachers or wildlife of their presence. Months prior Future was unemployed and had virtually given up on life. But now things have changed.
She is gainfully employed and is managing to care for the needs of her two children and her extended family.
She says joining Akashinga has brightened her future and now she looks forward to developing as an individual.
“I joined with the first group of 87 women for the initial interviews and passed. I went through all the stages of training and was selected among the first group of 16 women who graduated.
“Before joining Akashinga I was not working at all and life was very difficult because of the economic situation in the country. But now I can afford to adequately take care of my family, which I was unable to do before joining Akashinga. Things have really changed, every month-end I join others in the queue at the bank to collect my dues like a normal working person. A year ago I could only dream of doing that.”
Project founder Mander said the initiative has opened up employment opportunities for women working in the conservation industry. He said: “Frontline jobs across the world are opening up to women. We are seeing a lot of women in many military set-ups getting exposed to opportunities that historically have been for men. The conservation industry has lagged behind, we have seen very slow movement in terms of getting women onto the frontline in conservation.
“It doesn’t give women exposure the skills they need to move up into management positions within the conservation industry.
What this project has done is that it has highlighted to us that we have twice as many people to chose to become rangers and become and work in the conservation industry.”
President Mnangagwa has said the women of Akashinga are playing a critical role in conservation and empowerment of communities.
“I am also proud to recognise the women rangers of the Akashinga project, whom, my daughter Tariro met late last year,” said President Mnangagwa. “Women will play a vital role in the rebuilding of Zimbabwe.
Through this programme, women are being empowered to make a positive contribution to their communities and to protect our precious wildlife. We salute their bravery and commitment. Conservation and tourism go hand-in-hand and my Government is committed to ensuring the safety of visitors and to working with partners to increase our conservation efforts to protect our natural world.
“We undertake this commitment not just for the people of Zimbabwe, but to allow people around the world to experience one of the most beautiful countries in Africa.”