The African savanna elephant population has been decimated by poaching, with as many as 33,000 of these iconic animals killed every year for their tusks. Now, there are just 415,000 savanna elephants left in the wild — down from 526,000 in 2006. But this threatened, matriarchal species has a watchful ally in Nyaradzo Auxillia Hoto, a commander of another women-led group, the Akashinga rangers.
Akashinga, which means “the Brave Ones” in Zimbabwe’s predominant Shona language, is an all-women anti-poaching unit that is making a dramatic difference in protecting elephants and other wildlife in the south African country. The rangers of Akashinga have, since 2017, led an astonishing turnaround in elephant poaching numbers, reducing the cruel practice by more than 80% in Zimbabwe’s Lower Zambezi Valley, where they operate.
A fresh start
And for the members of Akashinga, safeguarding other living beings is deeply personal.
“Animals shouldn't suffer or feel pain for the sake of our needs and desires,” says Hoto, the Akashinga squad leader, who, along with the other members of the unit, agreed to a required plant-based diet — part of a holistic commitment to protect animals. “They have the right to live and enjoy their life. Now the animals feel secure, and we have a strong bond with them. We are like family.”
The family bonding these rangers feel with the animals they protect is also a kinship they have developed with each other. Most of the 200 members of Akashinga are former victims of domestic abuse, and Akashinga has given them a renewed sense of confidence, purpose — and sisterhood.
As much as they are protecting elephants and other wildlife, Akashinga is also shattering stereotypes: of what women can achieve and what jobs are “appropriate” for women.
“I work near an important Zimbabwean highway that leads to Zambia,” recalls Hoto, “and I have seen a female truck driver making her way along it. When I was young, I would not have believed that. I also work in a field that was once said to be a man's job. Seeing the woman truck driver made me realize that nothing was holding back my aspirations when I was young.”
And those aspirations have now expanded to include the hazardous occupation of a wildlife ranger. How hazardous is the work? Consider that about three-quarters of Zimbabwe’s 13 million citizens live on less than $5.50 a day, and a pair of contraband elephant tusks — average weight of about 250 pounds — can command almost $400,000 on the black market. So when heavily armed poachers have an elephant in their sites, they’re often not persuaded by rangers. Sadly, throughout Africa, ranger fatalities are far from uncommon.
But the Brave Ones are not flinching, and they’re arresting those poachers, always through a conflict-reduction prism. They have made more than 300 arrests since 2017, yet without firing a shot.
Akashinga was created as a unit of the International Anti-Poaching Fund, a nonprofit animal protection organization, the philosophy of which is that “change happens when it’s community-led, and who better to lead change within a community than the women that have been raised in them.”
“The primary strategy of Akashinga is female empowerment,” says IAPF founder Damian Mander. “The Nature Conservancy states, ‘Empowering women is the single biggest force for positive change in the world today.’ Also, the United Nations says: ‘When women work, they invest 90 percent of their income back into their families, compared with 35 percent for men.’ ”
Further, according to UN Women, economic autonomy for women “boosts productivity, increases economic diversification and income equality in addition to other positive development outcomes.” And the IAPF agrees, finding that 62% of operational costs of the Akashinga model go directly back to the local community, with 80% reaching the community at household level. The women in this program are able to help wildlife, their communities, and themselves as a result. It’s a more sustainable future for them and the world they help protect.
‘Transformed my life’
Their work — and Hoto’s leadership — have been recognized by their peers. This summer, at the IUCN Africa Protected Areas Congress in Kigali, Hoto was one of 12 rangers and ranger teams from around the world to receive an International Ranger Award today for their “extraordinary commitment to protecting nature and helping local communities.”
The awards committee cited Hoto for “helping to pioneer more inclusive and less confrontational approaches to protection that focus on positive social impacts as well as on conservation.
Her courage, perseverance, diligence, and honesty have helped her overcome personal and professional obstacles to become a respected and trusted ranger sergeant. Operating with her team in often dangerous environments, her innovative work has proved highly effective in reducing poaching, building local support and empowering local women, earning the admiration of her colleagues and the support of her community.”
“My job and duty as a ranger has totally transformed my life,” she notes. “The braveness in me — I couldn’t ever have imagined it before. Wildlife rangers in Africa are the frontline protectors of the natural world. They are also ambassadors for wildlife and natural resources to the communities that live around conservancies or protected areas. Without rangers, we could lose Africa’s natural heritage and, in some cases, rare and endangered species forever.”Support the Akashingas