Akashinga is a community-driven conservation model, empowering disadvantaged women to restore and manage large networks of wilderness areas as an alternate economic model to trophy hunting. 

Many current western-conceived solutions to conserve wilderness areas struggle to gain traction across the African continent. We decided to innovate, using all female teams to manage entire nature reserves and have been astounded by the transformation and potential.

The program was started in Phundundu Wildlife Area in Zimbabwe’s Lower Zambezi ecosystem. It builds an alternative approach to the militarized paradigm of ‘fortress conservation’ which defends colonial boundaries between nature and humans. While still trained to deal with any situation they may face, the team has a community-driven interpersonal focus, working with rather than against the local population for the long-term benefits of their own communities and nature.

 

KEY POINTS

  • A growing body of evidence suggests that empowering women is the single biggest force for positive change in the world today
  • Trophy hunting areas across Africa take up one-sixth of all landmass across participating countries. An expanse greater than all of France
  • The hunting industry is rapidly declining, leaving these wilderness areas and communities without sufficient income to incentivise conservation – Unless an alternative source of income is provided, these areas will be lost, along with their rich biodiversity
  • Akashinga employs the most marginalized women from rural communities; educates and trains them to be rangers and biodiversity managers – protecting the large landscapes previously reserved for and financed by trophy hunting
  • A woman with a salary in rural Africa invests up to 3 times more than a male into their family
  • 62% of operational costs of the Akashinga model go directly back to the local community, with up to 80% of that at household level, into the hands of women – turning conservation into a community project
  • These factors equal a better financial return for the local community than what trophy hunting provided
  • This is an efficient, effective and scalable model which inspires and empowers women and gives them the opportunity to secure their own destiny, whilst safeguarding biodiversity
  • It prepares women for the worst-case scenario in their roles, but fosters a harmonious relationship with local communities as the best defence against illegal wildlife crime.

VISION

The vision of Akashinga is to replace trophy hunting as an area management tool for conservation in Africa. This achieves landscape conservation at scale: A balance of ecology, economics, ethics and politics for the long-term preservation of large wilderness areas.

GOAL

Akashinga aims to recruit 1000 women, protecting a network of 20 former hunting reserves by 2025 – Wilderness reclaimed from trophy hunting and run by women.

STRATEGY

We put the empowerment of women at the centre of the strategy. This gives the greatest traction in community development and conservation because the bi-product. 

BACKGROUND

“The fate of humanity is inseparable from our willingness to conserve biodiversity”

In early 2017 the International Anti-Poaching Foundation (IAPF) was approached to assist with conservation efforts in Zimbabwe’s Lower Zambezi ecosystem. Due to poaching, elephant numbers in the region had declined by 40% since 2001.

Law enforcement and conflict resolution around the world has increasingly evolved to include women in key roles. In Africa and conservation however, men take most front line positions. Despite the fact women often do the majority of manual and household labour in Africa, Western conservation models have ignored their inclusion at scale.

Inspired by the progress of women and driven by the need for evolution in the conservation industry, the IAPF set out to deploy an all women team to restore and manage a reserve that was historically used for elephant hunting. This formed the Akashinga model.

Their mission would be to establish the first team of 32, then expand east and west to secure an area of almost a million acres, cutting off access for poachers into one of Africa’s largest remaining elephant populations.

Making their way towards the training grounds they were harassed by a group of drunken men yelling: “This job is not for you. It has never been. Go back home where you belong!”

Selection was opened exclusively to unemployed single mothers, abandoned wives, survivors of sexual and physical abuse, wives of poachers in prison, widows and orphans. By doing so, opportunity was created for the most vulnerable women in rural society. Having never received a secure form of income, they dealt with adversity and poverty within the marginalised areas of rural Zimbabwe every day of their life. Challenging ridicule and stereotype, they would seize the opportunity and return home as rangers.

 

TROPHY HUNTING, COMMUNITIES & CONSERVATION

“These hunting areas make up a staggering one-sixth of all landmass”

Trophy hunting has generated income and security across African wilderness areas for decades. These hunting areas make up a staggering one-sixth of all landmass across participating countries and are often not practical for alternative forms of tourism such as photography. Regardless of one’s position on the subject, trophy hunting is becoming less economically viable due to public perception, activism, constraints on hunting specific iconic species, import restrictions on trophies and reduced wildlife populations. Sentiment within the trophy hunting industry is that limited wildlife populations will soon only be accessible to the financial elite to hunt. As a consequence, many of these areas and their neighbouring communities no longer receive sufficient benefits from hunting to motivate conservation.

As benefits disappear from the communities, the pressure on the protected areas increase. Where anti-poaching operations aim to protect a wilderness area from the inside working outwards, a level of antagonism is created. Shut off from traditional grazing areas, places of burial, worship, water points, food sources and traditional medicine, locals often feel regarded as of lesser importance than flora and fauna. Resentment fuels poaching, an activity during which sons, husbands, brothers and uncles can be arrested or even killed. The problem further compounds if employment is outsourced to other regions with the majority of benefits following. Where collabouration cannot be cultivated, an aggressive and costly approach is required to protect wilderness spaces. The cycle of antagonism and increased anti-poaching measures creates a sinkhole for conservation costs.

Whilst the international pressure to reduce trophy hunting intensifies, there has been no proven scalable model as a workable alternative. With this downturn, the creation of economically viable and self-sustaining protected areas is not possible without a novel approach. Akashinga is now investing the same amount into the local community every 34 days as what trophy hunting was doing per annum. 

To continue preserving these areas and their significant biodiversity, communities need to be included while gaining similar or greater benefits than what trophy hunting provided.

 

FROM BENEFITS TO EMPOWERMENT

“Akashinga invests at least 62% of operating costs directly back into the hands of local villagers.”

Wilderness areas need to be cared for through long term relationships, not fortified. This is being achieved by empowering local women and the communities that they live in. They then have an investment in conservation and retain the majority of benefits, ensuring local ownership of these areas. Conservation should start from the communities and filter back in towards the park, building local relationships and capacity as a top priority. This is key to long-term sustainable conservation at scale.

From employment to goods and services, Akashinga invests at least 62% of operating costs directly back into the hands of local villagers. The full-time law enforcement staff are women, supported by instructors to continue with their career development. A woman with a salary in rural areas invests up to three times more than a man into their family and household.

These factors ensure an equal or better financial return and economic impact for the area than what trophy hunting provided. In turn, protecting the area and regulating access to the natural resources allows local communities to have the benefits of the land that they traditionally held.

The Akashinga model partners directly with long-standing local stakeholders and traditional leaders, providing faster, easier and more stable access to 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.

The women who have graduated into this program received the same law enforcement training and fulfill the same role as a male ranger, learning skills such as leadership, unarmed combat, patrolling, camouflage and concealment, first aid, dangerous wildlife awareness, 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. They patrol within and around the reserve, interact with the community, liaise with local authorities, conduct regular training and maintain a high conservation ethic. The armed unit working inside the wilderness area is supported by an unarmed and far less arduous village scout program working outside in the communities. The village scouts operate from their own homes each day. This gives flexibility for women to rotate around, spending more time working from home when required.

The team is exposed to danger in their role, as are all male rangers – an unfortunate reality of conservation work. Women however are much better at deescalating situations as opposed to antagonizing them. The women in this program are working towards prevention, rather than cure. They are prepared to deal with the escalation of threat against them, but trained to democratically police the area as opposed to ruling it with force.

 

NOT JUST CONSERVATION

“A growing body of evidence suggests that empowering women

is the single biggest force for positive change in the world today”

Akashinga is an investment into women and their families, the development of rural communities, neighbouring wilderness areas and an alternative to trophy hunting. By empowering rural women the program also locally motivates poverty reduction, healthcare, skills development, children staying in school, rape & sexual assault prevention, increased life expectancy, disease reduction and structured family planning.

Akashinga empowers and inspires. Employed, fighting fit and in charge of their physical and financial destiny, these women can help change the world.

For more information email akashinga@iapf.org

Akashinga is a project of the International Anti-Poaching Foundation (IAPF)

Read The Guardian story here

Full picture essay here

Photography by Adrian Steirn & Damien Mander

~ The program is entirely vegan for a greener planet ~