There’s a significant shift in the way animals are now being protected thanks to Africa’s first armed, all-women anti-poaching unit. These fierce women are saving the day by arresting poachers without firing a single shot. This is Kelly Lyee Chigumbura’s story:
Chigumbura was only a 17-year-old girl when she was molested near her family’s home in Zimbabwe’s Lower Zambezi Valley. She soon realised that she was pregnant following the horrific experience and pushed aside her dreams of pursing a career in nursing after dropping out of school.
“My goals had been shattered,” she says. “It was like I couldn’t do anything more with my life.”
Without a job, a skillset and no prospects for the future, Chigumbura took her baby to the mother of her molester, as per the Shona customs that dictates that if a mother lacks the resources to take care of her child, the child is given to the father’s parents.
The little girl, Yearn Cleopatra, was then raised away from Chigumbura, and she was not allowed to visit her daughter. Whenever she attempted to see her daughter, false stories such as the grandmother saying that her baby was in Mozambique would detract her of the opportunity.
This persisted for three years until Chigumbura, who was 20 years old at the time, was approached by the village head. As Rachel Nuwer explains in BBC Future, an Australian named Damien Mander was searching for female recruits to become wildlife rangers, and the village believed that Chigumbura would make an excellent fit. If she was successful, she would be responsible for patrolling and protecting the Phundundu Wildlife Park, which is a 115 square mile former trophy hunting area that is part of a larger ecosystem home to around 11,000 elephants.
BBC Future adds that Chigumbura seized the opportunity, and after a strenuous three day-long military-style try-out, she was invited to become part of the new force. Mander requested that she and the 16 other women who came from backgrounds of abuse to consider a name for their unit. These women decided on a powerful title – Akashinga – ‘the Brave Ones’ in Shona.
“When I manage to stop poachers, I feel accomplished,” she says while spending her days protecting the most vulnerable – the wildlife. “I want to spend my whole life here on this job, arresting poachers and protecting animals,” Chigumbura adds. Joining this unit has also restored her confidence and has afforded her the opportunity to win back custody of her daughter.
“The change in them, the shift, is unbelievable,” says Alistair Lyne, a filmmaker who is documenting the project. “Whereas before they were ashamed in a way, now they have a spirit to them. They’re walking on air.”
As far as Mander knows, Phundundu is the first nature reserve in the world to be managed and protected by an all-women ranger unit. He believes that placing the well-being of wildlife in these women’s trained hands could encourage a new way of carrying out conservation, where women are empowered while the community is improved.
“There’s a saying in Africa, ‘If you educate a man, you educate an individual, but if you educate a woman, you educate a nation’,” Mander says. “We’re seeing increasing evidence that empowering women is one of the greatest forces of change in the world today.”
According to BBC Future, by 2030, he hopes to see the Akashinga model expanded and to employ 4,500 female rangers watching more than 96,500 square miles (250,000 sq km) of former hunting blocks across Africa.
It might be a battle to achieve this goal considering the critics who have questioned the sensibility of arming women and sending them into the bush on patrols. However, Mander dismisses such claims of sexism and cynicism and sees no reason why similar successes cannot be achieved in many other places throughout Africa.
“At the very least, with this model we have twice as many people to choose from for employing as rangers,” he says. “At the very best, I think women will change conservation forever.”
You can support these brave women in their important endeavours by donating to the Akashinga group over here.
Picture: BBC Future by Rachel Nuwer