The illegal ivory trade and associated poaching of elephants in East Africa have been a tragic and ongoing issue that is combated daily by numerous groups. Rough estimates of the poaching industry put current profits in the tens of billions of dollars, all the while populations of endangered species continue to accelerate towards extinction. In early 2017 the International Anti-Poaching Foundation (IAPF) was approached to assist with conservation efforts in Zimbabwe's Lower Zambezi ecosystem.
Due to poaching, elephant numbers in the region had declined by 40% since 2001. The IAPF's approach was simple: train a group capable of not only defending the herd but also winning the hearts and minds of community members to bolster all anti-poaching efforts. Their tactic was to use all women. The program builds an alternative approach to the militarized paradigm of ‘fortress conservation' which defends territorial boundaries between nature and humans. While still trained to deal with any situation they may face, the team has a community-driven interpersonal focus, working with rather than against the local population for the long-term benefits of their communities and nature.
The logic for the choice was relatively simple. The key to winning the hearts and minds of the community is through low threat engagement, a task more easily facilitated by females. While often oppressed due to traditional social structures, women had the most to gain and the most to prove, and they have wildly exceeded any expectations.
Contractors from the IAPF note the drive that the women display during the selection process noting that their grit and courage far outweighed their African male counterparts. In 2017, the IAPF (International Anti-Poaching Foundation) started the Akashinga Project in Zimbabwe (Shona for "The Brave Ones") to combat poachers in the lower Zambezi valley region. The tactic of using all women was intended to have economic benefits as many of the women come from disadvantaged backgrounds, for instance, unemployed single mothers, victims of sexual and physical abuse, wives of poachers in prison, widows, and orphans. The first class graduated 16 and now in their second cycle show the promise to grow to 35.
These women are actively targeting the source of the ivory trade. Elephant tusk and rhino horn are still commonly used in traditional Chinese medicine despite being found to have no more medicinal properties than chewing on your fingernail. The only other use of ivory is to create ornaments or artwork. No other part of the elephant is used or harvested by the poachers, who usually leave the carcass behind as waste. Not possessing any tusks until the age of 6-12 months, often the young calf's that were accompanying the slaughtered adult elephant that is tragically also left behind. This kind of unchecked harvesting has wreaked havoc on elephant and rhino populations.
Anti-poaching efforts like the Akashinga, don't just help the elephant population of East Africa but also do a lot for providing sources of income for impoverished women. These women demonstrate their passion on a daily basis for not only protecting the elephants but being able to provide for their children and members of the community a higher quality of life.