Women Rangers Pursue Poachers in Zimbabwe While Debate Ensues Over Anti-Poaching Tactics

Damien Mander, founder of the International Anti-Poaching Foundation, has changed the lives of the women he’s hired to be wildlife rangers in Zimbabwe’s Lower Zambezi Valley. But many people in the conservation world worry that Mander’s approach is neither effective nor safe.

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NYAMAKATE, ZIMBABWE — The sun is setting, but rifle drills at this hidden campsite in the bush aren’t over yet.

A drill leader shouts commands. The rangers, who are all women dressed in fatigues, respond immediately. This isn’t a military camp, but it operates as though it is. When their leader speaks, the rangers act.

That’s all the more true when the person giving commands is Damien Mander, the founder of this operation. Mander, an imposing Australian, trains the women to track, apprehend and even fight criminals who mutilate and kill endangered and at-risk animals, including elephants and rhinos, for money.

The anti-poaching squad that trains here is called Akashinga, a word that means “the brave ones” in Shona, a key language in Zimbabwe. The squad patrols a section of land that attracts both criminal poachers and hunters who operate legally.

Mander is the squad’s well-financed chief and a murungu. In Shona, that means “white man.” Here, miles from paved roads and deep in the bush studded with baobab and acacia trees, the rangers seem pleased to follow Mander’s orders.

Today, though, voices are low, faces are long and eyelids are heavy.

Three people are dead: two female rangers and one male sergeant. They were part of a group patrolling a portion of the roughly 230,000 acres that Mander says the unit secures. They came upon a waterway, and some members of the group pushed through the water instead of climbing on the rocks that flanked it. When one ranger began to struggle, her sergeant and another ranger went back to help her. All three drowned.

A visitor, a psychologist from Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital, pulls the rangers aside one by one to talk about what happened. There are rumors that there will be a traditional ceremony in a nearby village, once the light fades completely, to eradicate bad spirits, which some locals believe are connected to the deaths.

Vimbai Kumile was part of that group on patrol that day in March. She describes what happened:

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Kumile says she decided then to leave Akashinga, but a family member convinced her to stay for the sake of her children. Weeks after the drownings, Kumile says she’s confident that she made the right choice.

There’s little debate about whether the women rangers and their families – and the entire community – benefit from the Akashinga program. Each ranger earns about $400 per month, Mander says. That’s an enviable salary in this part of the country, where most households live on the equivalent of about $175 per month. The women spend much of that money locally. Plus, locals say that wildlife, long pushed from the area by poachers, is slowly returning.

But in the closely connected world of anti-poaching, conservationists question whether Mander’s approach of training rural Zimbabwean women to fire weapons and track and arrest poachers is appropriate or effective.

Those questions are nothing new, says Mander, who calls the conservation world a “snake pit.”

The week those rangers died was “the worst week of my life,” he says.

“It’s a dangerous job, and to lose people in an accident, as opposed to in an operation – if it’s possible to be more tragic, it is more tragic,” Mander says.

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At least one of the rangers couldn’t swim. That’s a key skill for ranger training programs, according to guidelines published by the World Wildlife Federation and other organizations. Mander’s organization, the International Anti-Poaching Foundation, is listed as a contributor to the guidelines.

The women of Akashinga are at the forefront of a new wave of anti-poaching efforts that attracts well-armed foreigners with high-end equipment, which prowls the savanna like rovers on the moon. Wildlife conservation was once the realm of national park rangers or game reserve workers, but as poachers have increasingly formed or joined powerful criminal syndicates, anti-poaching units have evolved into elite, military-style squads, with high-powered firearms and full camouflage.

U.S. military veterans, active British troops, private corporations, anti-piracy security companies and a host of other companies and groups take contracts to stop poachers from hacking apart animals for their tusks and other parts.

Mander is among the more swashbuckling characters in this new ranger movement. He was trained as asniper in the Australian military and worked as a private military contractor in Iraq. But it was during a vacation in Africa, after he says he saw an elephant whose face had been sliced off by a poacher, that he felt compelled to make conservation his life’s work.

Mander looks like many of the other men who lead private anti-poaching brigades – tall, muscled and often clad in beige and olive green – but his Akashinga operation is dramatically different in that he not only hires local residents, he hires local women.

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It’s not unprecedented for women to work as rangers. The World Wildlife Fund, in a 2016 report published with TRAFFIC Wildlife Crime Initiative, found that 19 percent of rangers in Africa were women. But it’s unusual for an anti-poaching unit to hire only or even mostly women.

In multiple interviews with Global Press Journal, Mander emphasized that his organization isn’t militarized. The Akashinga rangers spend much of their time in boot-camp-style training and conducting patrols using techniques that Mander says he learned in the military. But, he repeats, the rangers’ greatest asset is their connection to the community, not their skills with firearms.

Akashinga, formed in 2017, is run by the International Anti-Poaching Foundation (IAPF), the organization Mander founded in 2009 and which now has a budget of about $1.5 million. Akashinga is a small program compared to the IAPF’s largest effort, a Kenya-based program called Lead Ranger, which trains participants to train other rangers.

Even so, nearly all of IAPF’s public information features images of Akashinga women holding military-grade weapons, wearing military-style clothing, with their faces painted and conducting training that includes hand-to-hand combat.

When GPJ filmed Akashinga’s training activities in March, Mander orchestrated the scenes. The women giggle when they practice fighting skills and fumble with firearm cartridges.

Organizations that emphasize weapons training and combat skills worry CeCe Sieffert, the deputy director for the International Rhino Foundation, which supports anti-poaching organizations.

Anti-poaching rangers with military backgrounds “are trying their best to help,” she says. “You can’t say anything about that. My concern is that it’s sort of applying a military situation to people who might not be trained or prepared. I don’t know that putting a very big gun in an untrained person’s hand is the best solution.”

Dangerous Work

Poaching is big business in this part of the world. Combating it is risky. According to The Thin Green Line Foundation, an Australia-based organization that tracks ranger deaths and injuries, 107 rangers died around the world between July 31, 2017, and that same day in 2018. The vast majority were killed in incidents directly related to their anti-poaching work.

Tarzman Foma, Tendai Hungwe and Edzai Malunga, the three Akashinga rangers who drowned, are listed among the dead.

Eight other Zimbabwean rangers have died since 2014, according to The Thin Green Line Foundation.

Nearly all – 94 percent – of the world’s rhino poaching occurs in South Africa and Zimbabwe, according to a 2014 report published by the U.N.’s environment arm and INTERPOL, the International Criminal Police Organization. In South Africa, rhino poaching increased by 7,000 percent between 2007 and 2013, according to 2016 European Union research.

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Zimbabwe is a complicated place for anti-poaching work. It’s an attractive destination for game and trophy hunters, who can get permits in countries throughout Africa to kill elephants, rhinos, lions and other animals that conservationists worry will eventually be wiped out. Zimbabwe is fraught with corruption, and there are persistent rumors that government agents sanction poaching.

In 2015, the country banned the hunting of lions, leopards and elephants, after an American killed a lion known as Cecil, but Zimbabwe lifted the ban just days later.

The potential profits from poaching are enormous. A 2017 report by Save the Elephants noted that ivory was selling in China for $730 per kilogram (2.2 pounds) – an enormous sum, even though the price has fallen in recent years. The weight of tusks varies widely, but wildlife experts say a single tusk might average just under 6 kilograms (13.2 pounds). The illegal wildlife trade could be worth up to 20 billion euros ($23 billion) annually, according to European Union statistics published in 2016.

“Every year, the poaching syndicates are getting more and more advanced,” Sieffert says. “They’re operating out of a tight-knit, highly organized and more militarized network.

Many people with military backgrounds are attracted to anti-poaching work, but those skills don’t necessarily translate well on their own, says Rory Young, an anti-poaching trainer who lived for decades in Zimbabwe and conducted anti-poaching training there until 2015. He says he left the country when his anti-poaching training, which was done in collaboration with the Zimbabwean government and local police agencies, uncovered links between poachers and local officials.

“In that case, either you stop or you compromise yourself,” Young says.

Young now works across Africa but always as part of nationally sanctioned efforts – never in connection with autonomous anti-poaching groups. Independent groups that arm themselves and operate like military units, no matter how well-intentioned, will always attract unwanted scrutiny, he says.

“[Rangers] come out armed to the teeth, dressed in camo and start teaching privately hired scouts this military doctrine. That’s bound to piss off any government,” Young says.

Those military-style ranger units are likely to lack key expertise that differentiates military operations from anti-poaching operations, Young says. In his organization, former soldiers work with anthropologists, biologists and other experts. Together, those stakeholders can create an anti-poaching strategy that works, he says.

“When you talk about these military units, they’re taking a guy who normally wouldn’t even do his own planning,” Young adds. “A special-forces soldier doesn’t know how to plan operations or how to interact with local communities.”

[What’s the difference between poaching and trophy hunting?]
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A Military Past

It was Mander’s military background that nearly scuttled his work in Zimbabwe. For its first few years, IAPF focused on building training programs for anti-poaching officers across southern Africa. It also provided security for Stanley & Livingstone Private Game Reserve in Victoria Falls, in northwestern Zimbabwe. But that work stalled in 2012, when an Australian news agency published a report that a network of Australian special-forces personnel were engaged in espionage in Zimbabwe.

Mander wasn’t in Zimbabwe when that story broke, but he says a friend in the Zimbabwean government’s intelligence division called to warn him that he would likely be detained if he tried to return.

“You don’t get contacted officially and told you’re wanted for espionage,” Mander says.

Mander says he continually reassessed the Zimbabwean government’s interest in him over the next two years. By 2014, he says, he felt the political climate had shifted enough that he could re-enter the country.

“I actually returned without having any official clearance and met with army intelligence,” Mander says. “I told them that if they have any issues with me, I’d be happy to stand trial and prove my innocence.”

Mander says those officials let him into Zimbabwe without incident.

GPJ sought Mander’s immigration records at Zimbabwe’s national immigration office, but multiple officials said that those records are not a matter of national interest and are therefore confidential.

Even with his connections, Mander remains in the government’s sights.

“Every time he’s in the country, they need to know about it,” says Ian du Preez, the game reserve manager at Stanley & Livingstone Private Game Reserve, where Mander managed an anti-poaching security program beginning in 2010. “Basically, his movements are tracked when he’s in Zimbabwe.”

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A representative of Zimbabwe’s presidential administration came to the reserve whenever Mander was in the country, du Preez says.

During that time, Mander operated a volunteer program out of Stanley & Livingstone called Green Army, in which paying customers participated in a version of ranger training.

The visits from government representatives to Stanley & Livingstone ended in 2017, du Preez says, when the reserve hired a different company to manage security and when Mander started the Akashinga program.

Mander expects the check-ins.

“With the background that I’ve got, it would be naïve to think that the government wasn’t keeping an eye on what we’re doing,” he says.

Women Rangers

So far, Mander says, the Akashinga program has hired 47 people, most of them women, from the Nyamakate area. One notable exception is Tariro Mnangagwa, who is a daughter of Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa and who joined the group as a volunteer in late 2017.

The Akashinga rangers who agreed to be interviewed by GPJ all emphasize the opportunity that Mander created for them to provide for themselves and their families. Nyamakate is a sparsely populated frontier near Zimbabwe’s border with Zambia. People survive on farming and fishing. Formal jobs, with paychecks that result in actual cash, are scarce. Prostitution is a common option for women who can’t find other work. Many residents rely on under-the-table work at roadside stands and other informal businesses.

It’s a conservative region. Some traditionalists say the isolated wilderness areas should be left alone. Those areas are home to spirits who turn hostile when disturbed, they say.

Not every local person believes that spirits live in the wilderness, but those traditional beliefs are widely respected. The rangers in the Akashinga program are acutely aware of the connection between such beliefs and the land they patrol. After the two rangers and their sergeant drowned, some local leaders conducted a cleansing ceremony to appease the spirits.

Another point of friction between the rangers and the community is that the women carry firearms. That’s a job for a man, some locals say.

Mander argues that women are better suited to become rangers because they’re better than men at defusing tense situations. Poachers are more likely to peacefully surrender when confronted by a woman rather than a man, he says.

The strategy works, Mander says: Wildlife is migrating back into the area.

There are no reliable records showing whether Zimbabwe’s elephant population is growing or covering more ground as it moves, but locals say he’s right.

By mid-October, Akashinga rangers made 75 arrests, Mander says. Sometimes the rangers bring the poachers back to the rangers’ camp to question the poachers, but the poachers are all ultimately turned over to local authorities, he says.

There’s no way to independently verify the number of people the Akashinga rangers have arrested or to verify how many of those people were charged with or found guilty of crimes.

Mander says Akashinga is effective because the rangers understand their local community and get information from locals who know where the poachers operate.

Mander says he worried at first that the drownings in March would cause people to question whether women could be rangers. Months after the deaths, he says he’s still not sure why those rangers went into the water in the first place. Akashinga is a land-based program, he says.

Even so, a new $250,000 training facility is under construction near the Akashinga camp, he says, and it will include a swimming pool.

As tragic as they were, the drownings haven’t deterred other local women from seeking jobs with Mander’s organization.

“A lot of women, once they hear what the program is about, want to join, because they can be able to take care of themselves and their families,” says Jealous Mutisanwa, a local leader.

The rangers say they know their job is dangerous. Mander continually reminds them that a poacher will kill a person as readily as the poacher might kill an animal. The rangers didn’t expect that their team’s first casualties would be due to an accident that might have been averted, had everyone known how to swim.

This is a job that brings both danger and freedom. The rangers say they know they must embrace both.

Linda Mujuru, GPJ, contributed to this report. Kudzai Mazvarirwofa, GPJ, translated some interviews from Shona.