From the illegal hunting of animals to the illegal logging of forests, wilderness poaching is big business — and a big problem for those trying to protect the world's natural resources. Many resource managers use armed guards or community-based programs in an effort to stem poaching. But a growing trend is catching on that utilizes a new secret weapon in the war on poaching: women.
In Sri Lanka, women are working to protect the country's shrinking mangrove forests. More than half of the mangrove forests in the world have already been lost due to habitat destruction or poaching for firewood. Sri Lanka is one of the few mangrove havens left in the world, but poaching has become a growing problem in recent years as poor communities cut down more trees for fuel and profit. To combat this poaching, government officials have turned to local women by offering loans in exchange for protection. The government has offered micro loans and business training to 15,000 women — including thousands of widows from the civil war — in exchange for protecting the mangroves from poachers.
"We have discovered that if you want a project to succeed, have the women of the community run it," said Anuradha Wickramasinghe, chairman of the Sri Lankan nonprofit Sudeesa, in an interview with the Guardian. Sudeesa works in partnership with local government agencies to facilitate the program.
In Sri Lanka, the men may go out and earn the money, but it is the women who control it. They also control whether or not their family members, or anyone in their community, are cutting down mangrove trees. And if they can't prevent it, they can report it.
Meanwhile, women are also taking the lead in a program in South Africa designed to protect the country's rhinos. In South Africa, a rhinoceros is killed because of poaching every seven hours. But not in Greater Kruger National Park. Thanks to an initiative called the Black Mambas Anti-Poaching Unit, Greater Kruger has not lost a single rhino to poaching in the last 10 months, while 23 rhinos were poached in a neighboring preserve in the same time period.
The anti poaching unit is made up entirely of young, unemployed women from local communities. They are the eyes and ears on the ground that work with resource managers and armed guards to patrol the park's fences and protect not only the rhinos, but also the lions, giraffes and other species that live within the park's borders.
Rhino horn is worth more in South Africa's black market than even illegal drugs like cocaine. So the incentive to poach is high, particularly in the poor communities that surround Kruger National Park. Resource managers realized they had to work with the local communities — not fight them — if they were going to win the poaching war. By hiring young women from the community, they not only provided an economic incentive to protect the rhinos, they also supplemented their small team of armed officers. The women do not carry guns, but they are put through an intensive tracking and combat training program — and their presence along the park's borders provides enough of a deterrent to stop poachers.
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