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The International Anti-Poaching Foundation (IAPF) on Friday, December 1, announced the launch of a unique project, Akashinga (“the brave ones”), which empowers previously disadvantaged African women, by employing them to protect wilderness areas as an alternative to trophy hunting.
Trophy hunting areas across Africa take up one-sixth of all landmass across participating countries. The hunting industry is rapidly declining, leaving these wilderness areas and communities without sufficient income to motivate conservation.
Unless an alternative source of income is provided, these areas will be lost, along with their rich biodiversity. Akashinga educates and trains local women to be rangers and managers, protecting the large landscapes previously reserved for and financed by trophy hunting.
The first Akashinga project, now under way in Zimbabwe, has seen the creation of an all-female team who are trained and employed to manage an entire nature reserve. In early 2017 the IAPF, founded by Damien Mander, was approached to assist with conservation efforts in the Lower Zambezi ecosystem, where elephant numbers have declined by 40% since 2001 due to poaching.
Selection for the project was opened exclusively to disadvantaged women from the local community – for example, unemployed single mothers, sex workers, victims of sexual and physical abuse, wives of poachers in prison, widows and orphans – in order to create opportunity for the most vulnerable women in rural society. The pilot project began with 16 women and is entering its second stage, with a total of 35 women.
Inspiration for the project came from the growing body of evidence that suggests that empowering women is the single biggest force for positive change in the world today. Specifically, research shows that a woman with a salary in rural Africa invests up to three times more than a male into their family and local community.
Female empowerment through skills development and sustainable employment in these rural communities delivers many direct benefits, including increased life expectancy through better access to healthcare, more children able to participate in education, support for local businesses and the wider economy. Through employment, goods and services, over 70% of the operational costs of the Akashinga model go directly back into the local community, turning a security need into a community project.
Damien Mander said: “Many current Western solutions to conserve wilderness areas continue to struggle across the African continent, hampered by ongoing corruption, nepotism and a lack of partnership with local communities.
“We saw that an alternative and highly innovative approach was needed, a response that worked with rather than against the local population for the long-term benefit of both their own communities and nature,” he said. “Using an all-female team to manage an entire nature reserve is a bold and ambitious response and we have been astounded by the transformation and potential we have seen in this pilot project.”
The women who have graduated into the programme received identical law enforcement training and fulfil the same role as a male ranger, learning skills such as leadership, unarmed combat, patrolling, camouflage and concealment, first aid, dangerous wildlife, democratic policing, search and arrest, human rights, crime scene preservation, crisis management, firearm safety and use, information gathering and conservation ethics.
Their duties are to work with the community in order to stop illegal wildlife crime. The team is exposed to danger in its role, as are all male rangers – an unfortunate reality of conservation work. Women, however, have proven to be more effective at de-escalating situations, as opposed to antagonising them.
The Akashinga model partners directly with long-standing local stakeholders and traditional leaders, offering more efficient and stable management of wilderness areas over longer periods of time than any other model in Africa. It focuses on areas that need support, not areas that have it. Budgets for adequate protection are focused, retained locally and geared to maximum impact through the employment of women.
IAPF will now look to establish Akashinga in other wilderness areas, in partnership with local communities, and are embarking on a fundraising drive, targeting both corporate and individual donors, to support the project.