Image credit: Courtesy of Brent Stirton

Meet the Akashinga, a brave all-female ranger unit protecting elephants

African elephants are keystone species, meaning they play an essential role in their ecosystem as they prune the grasslands with their diet, weight, and movement. Yet, poaching has caused a steep decline in their population, putting the species and their habitat at risk. A women-led coalition of wildlife rangers is changing this narrative and protecting their homeland.

According to the Great Elephant Census (GEC), there was a 30% decline in Africa’s savanna elephants from 2013 to 2020. Zimbabwe was hit the hardest, with the Sebungwe region losing 75% of its elephant population and the Mid-Lower Zambezi losing 40%.

Habitat loss is partially to blame, but the primary cause of the fall of the African elephant population is poaching for the illegal ivory trade. The Akashinga is an all-female anti-poaching group in Zimbabwe dedicated to protecting elephants.

Image credit: Courtesy of Brent Stirton, Akashinga Facebook page

Meaning ‘The Brave Ones’ in the local Shona dialect, Akashinga is an innovative approach to conserving nature, bringing rural communities together, and developing the employment and empowerment of women as rangers and scouts. Locally recruited, these women are survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence, and HIV.

The Akashinga are on the frontlines across the region. They patrol vast areas of the savanna, make arrests, and work with local agencies to prosecute poachers. From 2018 to 2021, their overall conviction rate was 84.5%.

In four years, the Akashinga has scaled to 240 staff, helped drive an 80% downturn in elephant poaching across the area, and supported an almost 400% increase in the surrounding wildlife populations. They also work with Indigenous leadership circles and use traditional knowledge to track elephant migrations.

Additionally, women in the group are empowered to learn how to drive, go back to school, attend college, regain custody of their children from abusive former husbands, and purchase property. Local police chiefs have also reported a 60% reduction in domestic violence and rape. This drop is attributed to Akashinga’s positive influence in communities and the impact of women in law enforcement and key decision-making roles.

Image credit: Courtesy of Akashinga Facebook page

Elephants are a matriarchal species, living together in tight-knit family groups with the biggest and oldest female as the leader. It is fitting then that the people protecting the species and defending their ecosystem are powerful matriarchs too.