If we're going to save endangered species living in wildlife reserves in Africa, we humans need to do a better job of protecting them from other humans.

Anti-poaching squads already work hard to fend off people who want to kill elephants for trophies, dubious medical treatments or meat. Now, the focus is on encouraging them to work smarter. One way to to do that is to bring women into this previously all-male world. There are now two all-women anti-poaching squads (the first were the Black Mambas in South Africa) and early data shows they are saving more animals.

Why? The answer is complex. But a few smart reasons are offered by a unique program initiated last year by the International Anti-Poaching Federation (IAPF). According to the IAPF website, the first and most obvious reason is that women are "less susceptible to corruption, work harder, don’t get drunk, exhibit higher rates of honesty and pride and value their roles and opportunity highly." The second reason is that empowering women has real and measurable trickle-down effects in their communities.

A salaried woman in Africa spends three times more of her earnings in the local community than a man who earns a similar salary. With trophy hunting on the decline — once a way for some communities to earn income — providing a salary to a person who spends that money locally means the community is economically tied to animal preservation and conservation.

That creates a new paradigm and perception of animals in struggling communities, which in turn directly affects how local people feel about poachers. It actually costs more to deal with a community that protects poachers trying to eke out a living because it creates a cycle of resentment between local people and the nearby animal reserve. By working with women against poaching, some of the income from trophy hunting can be replaced, and people in the community have strong economic reasons to reject elephant, rhino and lion killing in any form.

Working together

This whole rethink of animal conservation is alternative to the colonial-based idea of "fortress conservation," which separates humans and nature. The all-women program through the IAPF (which has a number of significant differences from the Black Mambas, including arming the women) aims for "a community-driven interpersonal focus, working with rather than against the local population for the long-term benefits of their own communities and nature," according to the organization's site.

Behind the women-only Akashinga team in Zimbabwe is Damien Mander, who previously worked with the Australian military. After completing 12 tours of Iraq and who, upon return to civilian life, was at loose ends. A trip to Africa put him face-to-face with the $200-billion-a-year animal poaching problem, as he explains in the TedX video below, and he thought he could use his military training to equip anti-poaching forces with skills that would save animals. To that end, he sold everything he owned, founded the IAPF as a format for direct action to deal with the problem and went to work. He also converted to veganism. Since founding the group, Mander has trained hundreds of rangers — all of them male.

A life-changing moment

The women who make up the Akashinga anti-poaching unit are not who you might expect them to be — and that's by design. Mander hadn't worked with women before, but he was strategic when he went looking for applicants for his new ranger force. He looked for the woman who had been marginalized by their culture in one way or another. "He recruited abuse survivors, abandoned wives, orphans, sex workers and single mothers — women who, he said, 'weren’t victims of circumstance; they were victims of men,'" according to The Revelator.

The women went through the same kind of training as men did, including a 72-hour bootcamp-like intro that's a version of "hell" according to Mander — only three out of the 37 women who started dropped out after that trial by fire, and that's a much lower dropout rate of drop-out than similar-sized groups of men. The women completed "an extensive program that covers camouflage and concealment, conservation ethics, crime scene preservation and crisis management. They also learn how to deal with dangerous wildlife, democratic policing, firearm safety and proper use, first aid, human rights, information gathering techniques, leadership, patrolling, search and arrest, and unarmed combat."

'More effective than anything I've seen'

Since the program's inception in 2017, the Akashinga — which means "Brave Ones" in the Shone language — have made 60 arrests leading to many decades of jail time for the poachers they've caught. The women supervise an area in the Lower Zambezi and are "more effective than anything I’ve seen," Mander said. He goes on to say that the women are not only making arrests but are also able to de-escalate potentially violent situations more effectively. In addition, Mander says the women seem less corruptible — and less afraid to arrest someone in their village or family.

"It's very difficult to catch a poacher who lives in the same village as you or the one next to you, but whether you are my neighbor or my relative, if you do something wrong to my animals, I'll catch you," says Akashinga member Vimbai Kumire in the BBC video above.

The goals of the program are significant. As part of their aim to end trophy hunting, "Akashinga aims to recruit 2,000 women, protecting a network spanning 30 million acres of African wilderness and biodiversity by 2030 — wilderness reclaimed from trophy hunting and run by women," according to the IAPF site.

They're on their way. Almost three-fourths of the operational costs for Akashinga go on to provide "a better financial return for the local community than what trophy hunting provided," and local women are increasingly involved in saving wildlife, the point of the program is to keep more animals from being needlessly killed in the name of short-term gains. In the area the Akashinga women protect, over 8,000 elephants have been killed in the last 20 years. The hope is that number will be closer to zero with their help, especially as their forces expand.

As Mander said in the BBC video above: "Long-term solutions involve winning the hearts and minds of the community, and the most effective way to do that is through the women. Women, given the opportunity, have the mettle to change the face of conservation forever."

Starre Vartan ( @ecochickie ) covers conscious consumption, health and science as she travels the world exploring new cultures and ideas.

This all-women anti-poaching team is changing the face of animal conservation in Zimbabwe
Zimbabwe's Akashinga are protecting rhinos and elephants, and improving their own lives at the same time.