Every year, thanks to poachers, 30,000 species are driven to extinction. And in Africa alone, 96 elephants a day are killed at the hands of these poachers. But in Zimbabwe, efforts are being made to turn the tide against this illegal activity. Through his International Anti-Poaching Foundation, Australian Iraq war veteran Damien Mander has put together a skilled group of women to lead the charge. These women are the Akashinga rangers, an all-female anti-poaching unit that is changing conservation in Africa.
Akashinga, which translates to “brave ones,” is an elite squad that engages with the community to help change local perceptions about wildlife. And in doing so, they're saving species and promoting biodiversity. A new National Geographic documentary by executive producer James Cameron and director Maria Wilhelm goes behind the scenes and captures the story of Mander and these incredible women.
Training recruits in team building, leadership, unarmed combat, patrolling, wildlife awareness, and conservation ethics, Mander used his special forces background to empower the team. These women are now engaged, both socially and economically, with their communities as never before, and the results are incredible. Now, Mander hopes to grow the team to 1,000 rangers and keep the ball rolling.
We had a chance to speak with Mander, as well as Akashinga ranger Nyaradzo Hoto about the team's important role in conservation and how this work has changed the community for the better. Read on for My Modern Met's interview and to watch the full documentary.
What first spurred you to become involved in the anti-poaching movement?
Damien Mander: My background was as an Australian Navy clearance diver and then with special operations. I went on to work in Iraq for three years as part of the coalition effort. My career, up until moving to Africa, had been working in male-only units.
I started the International Anti-Poaching Foundation in 2009 and wanted to carry a similar theme from my military days into conservation. In the beginning, it worked, and we achieved great results. But having a constant conflict with local communities made me think back to all the mistakes we had made in Iraq. We had to think outside the box, and while I saw other industries progressing by having more women in management, conservation was stifling.
An article in The New York Times, in early 2017, about U.S. Army Rangers putting women through training for deployment made me really look hard. Ten years earlier, our convoy was hit while on a mission in Baghdad, and we were rescued by the U.S. Army Rangers. I figured that if the unit that was good and gracious enough to save my life was deploying women to be Army Rangers, maybe women could be wildlife Rangers as well. And proper ones, not just stuck at checkpoints or riding desks—the full responsibility and opportunity placed on their shoulders.
How did the first team of Akashinga take shape and why did you select them specifically?
DM: From 2009 to 2017, the IAPF ran conservation programs that were largely focused around law enforcement. In conservation, tactics were becoming increasingly militarized across the world in acts of retaliation to poaching and desperation to defend what was left.
We wanted to explore new methods that reunited conservation and community. So, in August 2017, we set out to recruit and train the first all-female, armed anti-poaching unit in the world in an abandoned trophy hunting reserve in Zimbabwe.
Making over 200 arrests in the first three years of operation, these women helped drive an 80% downturn in elephant poaching in Zimbabwe’s Lower and Middle Zambezi Valley, one of the largest remaining populations left on earth. The concept has now taken off, and we are in the process of training 240 more women for full-time positions as we scale towards 1000 rangers and a portfolio of 20 parks by 2025.
It’s such a powerful message to see women taking charge of this problem. How have you seen their work change local attitudes about the role of women?
DM: The Akashinga rangers are carrying out one of the most demanding and respected jobs in the world while thriving at it and building their own lives, families, and communities in the process. And all on a plant-based diet.
In Africa, men traditionally receive most front-line positions in conservation, but locals are now seeing the cascading benefits of putting women at the center of community-led conservation efforts. We shifted our strategy on wildlife conservation. We put women’s empowerment at the center of the strategy. That gave us the greatest traction in community development, and conservation became the bi-product.
What are your plans going forward to help end poaching, specifically elephant poaching in Zimbabwe?
DM: Zimbabwe is home to the world’s second-largest elephant population, and as the poaching wars rage on, the Akashinga rangers are essential in protecting this vulnerable species. As we expand, in partnerships with local government and communities, we will contract with more and more wilderness areas that would otherwise be lost. In the process, we will protect biodiversity, which is actually the key, not just elephants.
What do you hope that people take away from watching the documentary?
DM: We are grateful that the documentary has helped give the women and the program a global voice. We believe this voice will be a key component to helping us grow the program towards those 1,000 rangers.
How did you first become a ranger and what attracted you to the job?
Nyaradzo Hoto: I first heard the news about the newly formed Akashinga all-female unit from one of our community area councilors. My passion for wildlife and nature attracted me to this job.
How has becoming an Akashinga ranger changed your life?
NH: Through Akashinga, I acquired a driver’s license, which is a big deal for a rural African woman. I have been promoted to sergeant, of which I just came from the dust when I joined Akashinga. I managed to pursue my educational dreams after dropping out many years earlier.
I am now a part-time student at one of the Universities in Zimbabwe, undertaking a bachelor's honor science degree in wildlife, ecology, and conservation. I also managed to buy a block of land in our community not far from the school I was forced to drop out from many years earlier.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
NH: Making a difference in the protection of wildlife and nature while educating others to respect and share conservation values is very rewarding. I work with like-minded, self-motivated women who are conservation oriented and capable of achieving great things. I find that rewarding in itself.
What would you like people outside of Africa to know about what you do and why it's important?
NH: Akashinga is a community-driven conservation model on a mission to empower disadvantaged women to restore and manage a network of wilderness areas as an alternative economic model to trophy hunting. Our bold goal is to employ 1,000 female rangers that protect a network of 20 nature preserves under IAPF management by 2025. Our focus in Africa is to recruit and develop locally. We are not just about protecting the natural world, but also about bringing communities and conservation together.