Akashinga aka “The Brave Ones”, is a special operations forces trained all-female anti-poaching unit with a strong focus social impact and conservation, and are making waves across the conservation world.
The Akashinga plies their trade in Zimbabwe, Botswana & Mozambique, and Tanzania protecting animals (mainly elephants) across 9 million acres. Several hundred local women, most of which have had difficult pasts – financially and otherwise – make up this unit, which is led by Damien Mander, an Aussie who operated for years in an elite counterterrorism unit.
2.0. Success of the Akashinhga
Since the group’s beginning, the Akashinga women have proven themselves to be very capable. Although the numbers provided by the International Anti-Poaching Foundation (IAPF), Akashinga’s parent organisation, on decreases in poaching and the amount of poachers arrested by the unit points to great success. The group has arrested over 1,100 poachers, most of which were arrested peacefully, and garnered convictions for over 84 percent of them (source). A politician from the Hurungwe North region has also reported an increase in wildlife activity (source).
3.0. Criticism of the Akashinga
Like any innovative idea that rips up norms and breaks glass ceilings, Akashinga has received its fair share of criticisms, many of which surround the militarised nature of the group and its alleged lack of focus on development. One anonymous conservationist, Grey Dynamics spoke to for this piece, called the group “a publicity stunt for donor money.” Other criticisms, however, have unfortunately been based on gendered tropes about male and female roles and capabilities.
4.0. Training & Capabilities
To become an Akashinga ranger, women go through a brief but gruelling training process known as the four pillars of misery, modelled after special operations forces training. Over a 72-hour period, recruits train intensely, experiencing acute hunger and exhaustion in wet and cold conditions.
The complete training process is 6 months:
- 3 days selection
- 3 months basic
- 3 months of intermediate on-the-job training
After they become rangers, they carry semi-automatic weapons on patrol and take part in continuous training. According to Mander, Akashinga used to boast helicopters and drones before he took a slightly less militaristic approach to anti-poaching. The training and recruitment process is overseen by Mander but is managed by experienced rangers (source).
5.0. Akashinga vs the Black Mamba Unit
The unit’s impressive success in arresting poachers suggests the Akashinga women have become very adept at what they do. The militaristic nature of Akashinga’s operations has drawn criticism from Craig Spencer, the head of South Africa’s Black Mamba anti-poaching unit, the only other all-female anti-poaching unit on the continent. As opposed to Akashinga, the Black Mamba women do not carry guns. Spencer believes arming female poachers makes them “vulnerable.”
Others call the operation reckless for expecting women to face dangerous poachers who are often men (source). The unfortunate truth is that the Akashinga women were already vulnerable. Most have experienced poverty, abuse, and even rape. What’s more, no rangers have yet died in incidents with poachers after 10 years of arrests, and the training they receive enables them to protect themselves in their daily lives.
6.0. Livelihoods & Development
Another theme that detractors tie into criticisms is that of community engagement and long-term development. Spencer accuses Akashinga of not working with communities enough on development projects and calls the group “destructive” for “turning women into men”(source). While long-term development is the only truly pervasive deterrent to poaching, these women are more likely to contribute by doing their jobs and spending their money in the local economy than by coordinating top-down projects. Arming and training these women is not “turning women into men,” it is giving them with the means to excel in a role in which men have so often failed. Further, many experts consider the security these women are providing for their communities to be a prerogative to development.
Women are catalysts for development and change; the pay these women receive – equivalent to $300 – $1,500 USD monthly, which is comparably high in Zimbabwe – has provided them with a means to support their families and educate their children (source). It has also provided women with the means to put themselves through school, multiplying the developmental impact. The vast majority of the money they make, they spend in local communities, giving business owners the opportunity to do the same. However, the International Anti-Poaching Foundation (IAPF), the Akashinga parent organisation stated:
The Akashinga program supports more than 2000 indigenous Zimbabweans, 500+ households, significantly impacts over 800 school aged children and has provided 500+ Zimbabweans with employment opportunities.
7.0. The Future
Albeit at a smaller scale, the Black Mamba unit has also had success in decreasing poaching activity in South Africa’s Kruger National Park. Since the group’s creation, poaching in the park has gone down by 76 percent. The group states that it had focused more intensely on education and development than Akashinga, although Akashinga has implemented extensive develpoment initiatives too (source). Both models have been successful and have the potential to be even more so in the future. Security is a prerogative for development equally, as development promotes security – they are not mutually exclusive.
Although poachers kill fewer animals today than in 2011 to 2012, National Geographic estimates poachers kill 30 elephants per day in Tanzania alone (source). Each year, poachers kill roughly 500 Rhinos across the continent. If this problem is to be solved, they must address it holistically. Development must usher in better opportunities than killing animals for ivory just as trained professionals are needed to protect wildlife.