Holly Budge, founder of How Many Elephants, earnt a rare privilege of accompanying the highly skilled Akashinga rangers whilst they patrol the front lines. From the summit of Everest to the front line of conservation in the African bush, Holly is no stranger to adventure but this was a whole different beast. The Akashinga rangers are an arm of the International Anti-Poaching Foundation in charge of monitoring Zimbabwe’s Phundundu Wildlife Area, a 300 sq km tract of former hunting land in the Zambezi Basin to the country’s north. Akashinga translates as ‘the Brave Ones’, an apt name for the often dangerous work that they do.
“It’s 5.45am. I’m standing in line with four armed Akashinga rangers, ready to go out on foot patrol. “You may not see any wildlife Holly, this is not a safari trip” says Nyaradzo. I pinch myself as the realisation of what I am about to do gets real. These women are fighting a war on poaching and the poachers are not the only threat out there. The rangers load their rifles. The front ranger clicks her fingers as a signal to go. I take a deep breath as we move into the darkness”.
I spent several days immersed with the Akashinga Rangers, accompanying them on their daily patrols and other duties. Make no mistake though, this is not a 9-5 job and no day is the same. These women work fourteen days on and ten days off. Coming face to face with poachers and wild beasts, heading up raids and sting operations, these women are highly trained and highly motivated to make a difference to the future survival of endangered African wildlife species. They are not only changing the face of conservation but changing the traditional status quo of women staying at home bringing up the children. They are the breadwinners and positive role models in their families, their communities and beyond.
“As we move further into the interior, the realization that these women are my lifeline dawned on me. Without them, I’m a dead woman! This is a war zone and we are patrolling on the front lines. Challenges present themselves at every corner; Wild and dangerous beasts roaming, snare wire coiled round trees like spider’s webs’ awaiting their prey, the thorny undergrowth, the stifling heat of the sun, the desperate lack of water and signs of poachers’ presence make this a very hostile environment to be in, especially for a newcomer. “Welcome to the bush Holly” whispers one of the rangers. I gulp”.
The thought of the African bush devoid of elephants is heart-breaking enough but putting emotion aside, the impacts of losing these animals will be of extreme detriment to the environment and beyond. Elephants are a keystone species and important ecosystem engineers. If they go extinct, entire ecosystems could follow, but for now these women – the face of conservation – are here to do their best to stop this happening.
The Future Face of Conservation is Female
Founder of Akashinga, Damien Mander says “by moving men into construction and labour and putting women into the power roles of law enforcement, management, decision making, we’ve completely deescalated the majority of local tension and brought conservation and communities together”. He strongly believes the face of conservation going forwards is female.
I remember driving through the local communities with Nyaradzo, her go-to ranger, and heads were turning. She told me that the men in her community had instilled in her that women couldn’t drive big vehicles. Nyaradzo proved them wrong when she learnt to drive a year before through the ranger programme. Her pride was spilling over as she drove the 4×4 anti-poaching vehicle around the communities as part of her daily work.
This is not my first time on the front line having spent time last year immersed with The Black Mambas in South Africa, another all-female anti-poaching team. These are two very different female ranger models. The Black Mambas are armed with only pepper spray and handcuffs. The Akashinga are armed with rifles and trained in combat. Both are making a tremendous impact “on the ground” in Africa.
Support For These Rangers is Vital
The thought of the African savannah devoid of elephants is heart-breaking enough but putting emotion aside, the impacts of losing these animals will be of extreme detriment to the environment and beyond; If the elephants go extinct, entire ecosystems could follow as they are a keystone species and important ecosystem engineers.
I helped the Akashinga Rangers to dismantle snares wrapped around shady trees, just waiting for their victims to take shade from the beating sun. It was heartbreaking to try and comprehend how many snares are out there and how quickly they are replaced, once found and removed. It is an ongoing battle.
Now is the time to be supporting these rangers and others doing invaluable work on the front line in Africa. Because every day, 96 elephants are killed for their ivory. That’s 35,000+ of these magnificent, gentle, intelligent animals a year. That’s ten years to extinction. I’m calling all conservationists, scientists, politicians, educators, storytellers, adventurers and change makers who dare to say, “I can make a difference in the world”, lets work together to stand up for elephants, before it’s too late.