Women and Wildlife in the Zambezi Valley
How women protect our wildlife and take care of our environment
Wildlife and nature make up the ecosystems we all depend on. They ensure our access to food, fresh water, carbon storage, medicine, and recreation. Even so, biological diversity is lost at a frightening rate and as many as up to 1 million species are at risk of extinction.
For many reasons, women have a crucial relationship with nature and wildlife. Women are the ones hit hardest by climate change and biodiversity loss as they primarily directly dependent on natural resources, as a result of e.g., the gendered division of labour. In addition, gender biases of various kinds exclude women from decision-making processes in which they could contribute with important experiences and perspectives. While women’s relative vulnerability has previously been discussed at length, women’s active efforts to safeguard nature and wildlife has gotten less attention.
The Zambezi Valley in the northern part of Zimbabwe is a global biodiversity hotspot and includes for example Mana Pools National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage-listed site. The region currently hosts many endangered species such as the cheetah, the elephant and the African wild dog. To celebrate the 2022 World Wildlife Day, we want to introduce you to some of the women who protect and conserve wildlife and ecosystems in the Zambezi Valley.
According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), women are more prone to invest a higher proportion of their earnings in their families and communities than men. In Muzarabani, SAFIRE have initiated a project where a group of women were given an energy-efficient baking stove and were also trained in preparing jams using locally sourced fruits. Located in a remote area where no commercial bakeries are operating, the group can bake bread and make jams to sell to people in the surrounding areas.
This secures an income that is not directly dependent on poaching trees or wildlife. In addition, it helps people reduce the time spent going into forests where wildlife resides. Memory Gamba, one of the women who are part of the project, explains; “We are no longer forced to ask our husbands to go poach for meat, we can use our own money to buy it instead.”
Poaching is one of the main threats to wildlife in Zimbabwe. Most people have heard about commercial poaching and transnational illegal wildlife trade, but poaching is often also done out of necessity. Many communities living in or close to protected areas and conservancies poach for meat or fuelwood simply to ensure an income for their family. One of the ways to stop illegal poaching is therefore to provide opportunities for alternative livelihoods.
Apiculture initiatives to prevent human-wildlife conflict
Sharing resources, space and shelter with wild animals is not an easy task, but one that communities in this part of the country are living with on a daily basis. One method of protecting crops and communities from elephants and other species that can destroy crops and threaten communities is bio fencing. The African elephant might be the largest mammal in the region, nevertheless, it is terrified of bees. Therefore, placing beehives along the border of fields and villages can act as a natural and humane fence that keep elephants away without harming them.
Aulyn Makoni, who presents herself as a bee whisperer and works as an apiculture consultant at the RDC in Hurungwe, explains that there is a triple benefit of engaging communities in beekeeping. In addition to acting as a bio fence, keeping bees also provides farmers with an additional potential income from honey as well as an incentive to ensure that forests surrounding the hives are conserved for nectar, preventing deforestation. When Aulyn holds trainings in the area she is often told by participants that they appreciate being thought by a woman, and her trainings almost always have full attendance.
She explains that “we want them to know that it is possible to live in harmony with bees, we discourage them from using common methods of swarm harvesting that is deadly to the bees such as the burning of plastics. Instead, we teach them how to use indigenous and organic methods such as burning cow dung or leaves from specific trees.”
She emphasises that it is important to start with the mythology and history of bees and beekeeping, to ensure that there is a lasting fascination and interest for the project. Starting from that perspective she can create a safe space in which fears or worries about bees or their role as women in beekeeping can be voiced and addressed openly.
Female rangers protecting communities and wildlife
In between the small town Karoi and the Chirundu border post of Zambia and Zimbabwe, 62 women are patrolling the Phundundu wildlife area, safeguarding the animals and communities surrounding them. They are part of an all-female ranger’s unit and go under the Shona name Akashinga, which translates to “the brave ones”.
The unit operates with support from the International Anti-Poaching Foundation (IAPF) and was established five years ago. All women who are part of the unit are originally from the area and have survived forms of trauma or abuse in the past, now they have resurfaced as protectors of society. By going on patrols that can go on for weeks at a time, arresting poachers, attending almost military-like trainings, and setting their own agenda, these women are challenging deep-rooted gender stereotypes.
When this unit was formed, the rangers could sometimes go weeks without encountering wildlife, but since then their rehabilitation efforts and patrolling have paid off and now not a day passes without a sighting. The Akashinga women are showing their communities as well as the world that gender roles can be challenged and that women are just as well suited to patrol our forests as men are — if not more.
Margaret Darawanda, who has been a ranger in the unit ever since it was founded, highlights some of the specifically feminine coded qualities that make the unit so unique. “Traditionally, women are looking after and protecting their children and their families — that motherly instinct we also use it as rangers, we are looking after each other, the animals and mother nature.” She continues, “society doesn’t believe women are built for this risky job, so just by doing it we are achieving something, we are proving them wrong.”
When women take action to conserve our wildlife and our environment, they are actively changing society. By breaking barriers, they are showing the way forward, inspiring action in their communities and beyond. With the unprecedented decline in biodiversity and unforeseen degradation of ecosystems, we are at a stage where we need us all on board, we cannot afford to leave anyone behind. It is time for these efforts to be recognised and for these women to be invited into the conservation discourse.
These stories are among other initiatives to preserve the biodiversity in the mid-to-lower Zambezi Valley of Zimbabwe. The Government and UNDP are working together in these communities to reduce key threats to wildlife and their habitat, and increase livelihoods options of local communities.
Text and photography: Emelie Isaksen, Project Assistant Zambezi Valley Biodiversity Project