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Unbreakable: Females Fighting Poaching – A Study on Gender Impact in Decreasing Corruption within Anti-Poaching Units in Africa

A new study suggests women rangers are less susceptible to corruption, effective in significantly reducing poaching activity and excel at information gathering.

June 30, 2021

New research, which includes the International Anti-Poaching Foundation’s Akashinga conservation program, says an overall increase in female wildlife rangers is critical, suggesting women are less susceptible to corruption.

The study, released by George Mason University in the United States last week, says traditionally anti-poaching units and ranger roles have been occupied by men, with estimates indicating globally females make up only 7% of the ranger workforce.

Study author Jessica Graham says this disparity needs to narrow, with sufficient evidence that increasing women in leadership roles makes teams, organisations, economies and societies better and stronger.

Unbreakable: Females Fighting Poaching – A Study on Gender Impact in Decreasing Corruption within Anti-Poaching Units in Africa, which also found women are effective in significantly reducing poaching activity and excel at information gathering, aims to explore the role of gender in stemming corruption.

It does this through reviewing three case studies of all-female anti-poaching units in Africa – Akashinga, which translates as “The Brave Ones”, in Zimbabwe, The Black Mambas in South Africa and Team Lioness in Kenya. These units employ 250 rangers collectively.

“The all-female anti-poaching units boast an impressive record of zero reported incidents of corruption … and in the broader context of anti-poaching efforts, major reductions in poaching activities in the areas that they cover and patrol, and an increase in sightings of wildlife activity,” the study says.

The all-female Akashinga rangers on patrol in the Zambezi Valley in Zimbabwe. Photo: Brent Stirton

Corruption is defined as the abuse of entrusted power for private gain, and what is consistent is that all-female anti-poaching units seem to be successful across the board in not engaging in corrupt activities, such as bribes or theft within their units, it says.

In one incident, one of the International Anti-Poaching Foundation’s (IAPF) Akashinga rangers even turned her own husband in for illegal poaching activities.

These findings come as the global conservation community is increasingly aware of the detrimental impact corruption has on conservation efforts, with strategies to combat this being top priority in policy dialogues, it says.

Possible reasons include perception – if the perception by the general public as well as those women in the ranks is that women rangers are less corrupt, it is less likely that women will be offered corrupt opportunities by others for fear of being turned in.

Another potential factor contributing to decreased corruption among these anti-poaching units include few or no alternative job opportunities for these women, resulting in a sense of appreciation and risk aversion to doing anything that would jeopardise this opportunity.

The rigour in recruitment and training processes ensure only properly vetted, resilient and driven women are selected, so successful candidates must demonstrate equal or greater valor, emotional strength, and physical endurance to their male counterparts, it says.

In addition to zero corruption, all three units also reported a major reduction in wildlife poaching activities in the areas they are responsible for patrolling and an increase in community engagement and support for wildlife conservation.

The study also found women in law enforcement tend to excel at information gathering on a personal encounter level as well as among their social networks in the local communities.

The IAPF noted that only 3% of crimes solved by law enforcement are solved by catching someone in the act, the other 97% are resolved through investigations, requiring information gathering skills.

“Women form the backbone of informal communications in rural societies that further reduces wildlife crimes; hence why the Akashinga model has migrated toward an information-gathering focus.”

Akashinga, established in 2017, has been operating for nearly four years in the Zambezi Valley of Zimbabwe where one of the largest remaining elephant populations resides, and they now have over 200 staff who have conducted nearly 200 arrests, it says.

These women patrol and protect eight reserves covering a total of 1.25 million acres, and it has contributed toward the reduction of elephant poaching by 80% in the Mid to Lower Zambezi Valley, it says.

The rigorous interview, physical fitness selection, and training program were originally developed by the IAPF training team for earlier programs for male rangers.

“The initial cadre of women who passed the grueling test of endurance were all survivors of serious sexual assault and domestic violence, orphans or single mothers … where these women demonstrated strength and resilience equal to that of their male counterparts.”

Since Akashinga’s inception, the IAPF has transformed its model from a militarized approach to a more community-driven approach which has been instrumental for furthering community support.

“The program also includes a food and nutrition program for youth that are administered by the women rangers in their communities, gaining strong key stakeholder support, including from local tribal elders,” it says.

“Additionally, their community work will contribute to bettering the society through access to water and health. Today, an Akashingaposition is highly respected and sought after, with younger women aspiring to become rangers.”

The study concludes that equipping women to do the job of a ranger is good for the community, the economy, and the environment with a lasting impact that can shift the hearts and minds of children to serve as protectors of wildlife for generations to come.

*While the Akashinga program employs men for manual jobs, such as construction and road works, the ranger jobs are performed by women. These positions were filled by men within the IAPF in the past. Since moving women into these roles we have noticed a distinct downturn in corruption in the ranks. However, we do not wish to take away from the thousands of male rangers across the world that are doing a brilliant job in the face of adversity in the ongoing battle to protect nature. We are simply acknowledging what we are witnessing as a case study in Zimbabwe.

Download the report here.