Growing up in a small village of Nyamakate in the Zambezi Valley in northern Zimbabwe Margaret Darawanda dreamed of being a teacher. Her love of children inspired her, but life, it turned out, had a very different plan for her.
Margaret had found herself at a loose end after completing high school, when we set up our base at the nearby Phundundu Wildlife Area and began recruiting local women for the Akashinga conservation program.
“I just thought that I’d join the team and have something to do and help my mother and the keeping of the family,” Margaret says. “I wasn’t doing anything at home.”
She became part of the first intake of Akashinga rangers in 2017, and hasn’t looked back, embracing her role as a ranger. “I think it’s a special thing protecting something that cannot protect itself,” she says.
After completing her training, Margaret, a 24-year-old single mother of one, soon found her stride patrolling, collecting and keeping records, tracking and arresting poachers, investigating and educating the people in the community about the importance of wildlife.
One of her most rewarding moments occurred a year ago when she and her fellow rangers came across a lion caught in a snare, and with the help of local authorities they were able to dart it, treat it and release it.
“I just loved that day when we rescued a lion … it was not that badly hurt, because the snare was only around its leg but because it was not able to free itself we had to help it. It had been there a day.”
Her favourite animal is the eland, the largest antelope, because it is beautiful and it doesn’t do any harm to anybody, but when she started work as an Akashinga ranger there were only a few in the area due to its history of hunting and poaching.
“As time went on they began to multiply because we were there, we were protecting the animals and they came back because they saw it was not threatening area, it was now peaceful, we were patrolling, we were securing them, so we have a lot now.”
But it is not only eland that have come back.
“It’s very different from when we started. You’d see maybe old elephant dung, or old animal spoors meaning there were not a lot of animals active in the area, and there were just a few of the smaller antelope.
“But now you can see many animals coming nearer to the people, they are not even threatened, they feel safe, they can roam around freely. It’s so special because I can see a great change and I can see that our presence has made it happen.”
Her biggest challenge in being a ranger is enduring the hardships that can go with it, but she is committed to her work, so accepts it is part of the job.
“You have to commit yourself because you go through things that are tough, like having to patrol on bad terrain, having to go for patrols in bad weather.”
Margaret is proud to have become the breadwinner for her family, supporting her widowed mother, her two-year-old daughter and her four siblings, some of whom have families of their own.
And it is through such benefits to the local communities, that we have garnered support, after not initially being welcomed by many, who also found it laughable that women were being chosen to do such a job.
“When we started people didn’t understand what we were doing, people were saying it’s not going to work, they were used to freely going into the wildlife area and doing whatever they wished to,” she says. “We had to secure the area, and limit access.”
“But now there’s been a great change because we created awareness, educating these people and they now understand we are doing something, and with the increasing animal numbers they can see protection is happening and the ladies are doing a good job.”
In addition to generating income for the local communities through the rangers’ salaries, we have contributed even more by assisting schools, clinics and building and maintaining roads.
“They now understand why we are here, and they now respect these animals and they also help us in reporting whenever crimes are being committed that we need to react to.”
In her down time, Margaret is like any other young woman – she loves music and is a big fan of American singer Ariana Grande, whose songs have also helped her learn English, while another favourite is Zimbabwean this gospel musician Dorcas Moyo.
Around camp, Margaret, known simply as “Maggie”, has a reputation as a hardworking and reliable ranger, who is always volunteering to do extra work.
In addition to her role as a ranger, she fulfils administrative duties ensuring data collected on the field is recorded properly, as she excels on a computer, and also leads the briefing sessions as ranger units come off the field.
Margaret is also one of three to staff the operations room, so being the first point of contact with rangers in the field, and her approachable demeanour ensured she was chosen by her colleagues to be their welfare officer.
Her advice to rangers, or those thinking about such a career, is that you need to have the strength of being committed to what you do, as it’s a tough job, but if you give yourself to it so you can achieve at the end of the day.
“I like it because I know I am doing it for the protection of these animals, of these natural resources, and also for the community, as well as the generations that are coming, they will benefit from it.”