In Zimbabwe, women are being hired as rangers to protect one of Africa’s largest remaining elephant populations — and succeeding above and beyond expectations. BBC News traveled with the Akashinga, an all-women anti-poaching unit that aims to work with local communities rather than against them, witnessed the crew arrest four poachers — one of whom stood accused of poisoning elephants with cyanide. Speaking with the BBC, Vimbai, one of the top rangers with Akashinga — which translates to “The Brave Ones” — said that she had received skeptical comments from many men who don’t believe that women could be capable of fighting off poachers, men who are often heavily armed and dangerous.
“They just think that we cannot do it. They are totally wrong,” laughs Vimbai, who carries both a high-capacity machine-gun and a confident smile. To date, she said, she and her fellow rangers have arrested more than 30 poachers.
“It’s very difficult to catch a poacher who lives in the same village as you or the next village,” she acknowledged. “But [whether] you are my neighbor or my relative, if you do something wrong to my animals, I’ll catch you.”
Many of the women of Akashinga are survivors of abuse or are single mothers. For Nyaradzo Hoto, becoming a ranger gave her not only the chance to protect animals, but an opportunity to realize her own potential.
“My former husband used to exploit me,” said Hoto. “The marriage lifetime with him was a tough time because I just saw all my goals being shattered down. I just want to prove it, that no job is meant [just] for men, and I hope I have already proven it.”
Damien Mander, the founder of the Akashinga, said that his experience in conservation had taught him that women were actually better able to combat poaching than men — in more ways than one.
“Historically, we’d have to recruit rangers from around the country to come in and protect an area like this so they’re not influenced by the people that they grew up with in the local community. Women just don’t seem to be corruptible in that aspect,” said Mander. “I did a selection course for 189 men about six or seven years ago. At the end of day one, we had three left. At the end of day three with these women, only three had pulled off.”
“Long-term solutions involve winning the hearts and minds of the community,” he added. “And the most effective way to do that is through the women. Women, given the opportunity, have the mettle to change the face of conservation forever.”
Watch BBC News’ interviews with Akashinga below.