wenty-eight-year-old Nyaradzo Hoto grew up in poverty in a small village in Zimbabwe. She’s a survivor of domestic abuse and a single mother. Life could have turned out very differently for Hoto in a country that, up until recently, had the lowest life expectancy for women in the world. But today, Hoto is a sergeant in Africa’s first armed, all-women anti-poaching unit, the Akashinga. She’s in university and is able to support herself and her child.
Meaning, “the brave ones,” the Akashinga team not only put their lives at risk every day to protect elephants from ivory poachers but empowers other women to play an active role in conservation in their communities, offering a way out of cycles of abuse and oppression. The 87 women that became part of the inaugural ranger team were all survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence, AIDS orphans, or sex workers. “Protecting wildlife in nature is the most important thing but educating others to respect and share conservation values is rewarding in itself,” says Hoto.
In many countries, community roles that involve food production and the management of natural resources can give women a more intimate understanding of the natural world, expertise which they bring to conservation work, according to a comprehensive review by the Parks Stewardship Forum. Within the first three years, the Akashinga helped drive down elephant poaching across Zimbabwe’s lower Zambezi Valley region by 80%.
But there’s another sobering connection between women and nature that makes their conservation work important. Much like the natural world, women are still exploited around the globe. This parallel gave rise to the ecofeminism movement in the 1970s, which posited that our social systems of capitalism and patriarchy are the sources of both the exploitation of nature and oppression of women.
The ideology has since come under fire by critics for being reductionist and not always inclusive–the movement was born out of white female environmentalism–but there’s no denying the overwhelming amount of research that shows how the empowerment of women and environmental conservation success is inextricably linked. The Akashinga rangers and other women leading similar initiatives in Africa, including The Black Mambas, a female-led anti-poaching unit in South Africa, are examples of this more intersectional ecofeminism in action.
Akashinga is an initiative of the International Anti-Poaching Foundation. Founder Damien Mander intentionally put women at the center of the organization’s conservation strategy, creating opportunities for some of the continent’s most marginalized women. “While the situation has improved somewhat since I first moved here, life in rural Zimbabwe is still tough, especially for women,” says Mander.
While the number of women in conservation is rising in North America, men still greatly outnumber women working in conservation roles worldwide. In Africa, men account for 89% of the ranger workforce, according to a 2019 study by the World Wildlife Foundation. But the scale is starting to tip and women’s presence in the space is offering a way to address environmental and gender equality issues simultaneously.
“I want to assure all women in the region that the sky is the limit, all you need is courage,” says Hoto.
We spoke to four other women to watch in this growing movement.
Uganda’s First Wildlife Veterinarian
A leading scientist working to save East Africa’s endangered mountain gorillas, Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka made history at age 25 when she became the first wildlife veterinarian with the Uganda Wildlife Authority. At the time, there were no women doing fieldwork with wildlife in Uganda, but that’s changing. “If [women] see that I am heading up an NGO, they get encouraged and think, we can also do the same,” says Kalema-Zikusoka. Since then, the native Ugandan has been awarded numerous accolades for her conservation work and been named a National Geographic explorer.
Kalema-Zikusoka also founded the non-profit Conservation Through Public Health, which aims to address conservation issues through a community health-first approach. This includes educating women in reproductive health and family planning and bringing them into the conservation conversations so they can break the poverty cycle, and not have to resort to poaching to support their children. “You have to change people’s perspectives and attitudes so they want to protect wildlife, and if you only talk to the men and only get the men involved, you’re missing out on half the equation,” says Kalema-Zikusoka.
A Conservation Role Model in Rwanda
Claudine Tuyishime is the conservation and community officer at Singita Kwitonda and leads mountain gorilla conservation efforts in the surrounding Volcanoes National Park. Tuyishime is responsible for managing relationships with all of Singita’s conservation stakeholders, including local authorities, NGOs, and community members. She’s currently working on an intensive reforestation project that will become part of a critical protected buffer area for gorillas in the park.
Tuyishime says the empowerment of women is at the core of all her work at Singita. “Gender equality is becoming common in other areas, including politics and economic development, so why not conservation?” Part of why Tuyishime believes it’s important to get women involved is because of their role as caretakers and mothers. “Conservation knowledge will be transferred easily into future generations once more women get into leadership roles,” says Tuyishime.
A Community Outreach Leader in Namibia
Women’s unique opportunity to further conservation knowledge as caretakers and teachers is a sentiment echoed by Agnes Tjirare, the community engagement administrator for Wilderness Safaris in Namibia. “Women transfer wildlife and environmental protection skills to young children while nurturing them, converting them to be friends of nature,” says Tjirare, who spearheads the ecotourism company’s Children in the Wilderness non-profit in Namibia. The organization aims to develop the next generation of conservation leaders through engaging and educating children, including young girls, in conservation issues in rural areas of Africa.
The importance of empowering girls is central to the non-profit’s efforts. Tjirare engages local partners and stakeholders to ensure young women in rural areas are not only educated in the importance of conservation, but have the opportunity to attend career fairs, meet with university faculty, and are educated in reproductive health and legal rights in order to be able to make better decisions for their own lives.
The Woman Protecting Uganda’s Kyambura Chimpanzees
Stella Ashabe runs the Volcanoes Safaris Partnership Trust, a non-profit organization that connects Volcanoes Safaris’ luxury lodges—pioneers in gorilla and chimpanzee ecotourism in Rwanda and Uganda—to the neighboring communities and conservation activities. Ashabe’s most recent initiative is the Kyambura Gorge Eco-Tourism Project, which aims to safeguard a family of 28 chimpanzees in the gorge while supporting the local community. The chimps that live there are at risk, isolated from the rest of the jungle in Queen Elizabeth National Park as a result of deforestation.
As part of the project, Ashabe runs the Kyambura Women’s Coffee Cooperative, which provides jobs for women in the area while involving them in deescalating human-wildlife conflict. “The cooperative members became ambassadors [for the chimps] in the community, and eventually the trapping and killing of chimps stopped,” says Ashabe. Women who go through the cafe training program are often hired by the lodges afterward. Guests can help the cause by planting a tree seedling in the Kyambura gorge buffer zone, which was created to protect the fragile ecosystem from encroachment and contribute to its long-term conservation.