Hitting the front line running; Co-founder of World Female Ranger Day, Holly Budge, on patrol with the Akashinga Rangers.
Akashinga translates to “The Brave Ones” in the local language, an apt name for the often dangerous work they do. Coming face to face with poachers and wild beasts, heading up raids and sting operations, these women are making a difference to the future survival of endangered African elephants and other wildlife species.
Holly Budge, founder of How Many Elephants UK Charity, gained a rare privilege of accompanying the highly skilled and fully armed Akashinga rangers whilst they patrolled the front lines in the Lower Zambesi Valley in Zimbabwe.
It’s 5.45am, it’s still dark as I stand in line with four armed Akashinga rangers, ready to go out on foot patrol. “You may not see any wildlife Holly, this is not a safari trip” says Nyaradzo, my go-to ranger. I pinched myself as the realisation of where I was became very real. These women are fighting a war on poaching and the poachers are not the only threat out there. The rangers load their rifles. The front ranger clicked her fingers as a signal to go. I took a deep breath as we moved into the darkness.
We covered the ground purposefully, with an occasional stick breaking underfoot or a thorny branch trying to take my eye out. It was impressive how these women navigate through the terrain, gracefully moving through the thick undergrowth, whilst simultaneously spotting wildlife and looking out for signs of poachers.
We stopped abruptly and knelt down. I sensed a change in their energy, these women meant business. My mind started racing... What have they spotted? What’s going to happen next? To my delight, they had spotted an elephant cow with her calf, heavily camouflaged in the trees about 50 metres away from us. One ranger whispered to me, “a cow with her calf can be very aggressive. We must move back slowly”. I loved seeing the excitement on the rangers’ faces from the elephant sighting. Their passion for the wildlife shone through in that moment. No words were needed.
That night, we got dropped off with supplies and equipment to a remote area in the bush. After we set up camp, we patrolled the surrounding area to identify any imminent threats. An armed ranger stayed at the camp to guard and protect whilst we walked for two hours on a big loop around the camp. We spotted a herd of elephants relatively close by and could hear hyenas too. When we returned, we ate stew with Sadza and stoked out the fire so our location could not be identified by the poachers.
The plan was to sleep for a couple of hours before night patrol. As I lay on the hard ground, alone in a small tent, it dawned on me that I was completely and utterly out of my comfort zone in this environment! These rangers were my lifeline. Without them, I was a dead woman.
Wake up Holly, we are going out on patrol”. I quickly pulled on my boots. As we left camp, we resumed our positions in line and moved slowly into the darkness. We stopped and sat on the ground, waiting and looking for poachers’ torch lights. After a few minutes, one of the rangers whispered, “we are going to retreat because that noise is one of the most dangerous snakes in the bush and it is not far away”. I gulped. We made our way back to the camp. I opened the tent zip enough to see the beautiful starry night sky. The strange noises coupled with the intense energy of the bush made me feel more alive than ever. At 6 am, I awoke feeling relieved to have survived the night! I was instructed to wear an Akashinga uniform in an attempt to blend in better in the bush. During our six-hour patrol, we dismantled snares and recorded the location of several elephant herds and other wildlife. The heat was sweltering.
This was just two days in the life of an Akashinga ranger. These brave and courageous women, selected and trained by the International Anti-Poaching Foundation, are doing such valuable but often challenging work every day and are making a real difference on the front line of conservation. The thought of the African bush devoid of elephants is heart-breaking enough but putting emotion aside, the impacts of losing these animals will be of extreme detriment to the environment and beyond; If the elephants go extinct, entire ecosystems could follow as they are a keystone species and important ecosystem engineers.
Stay tuned for more ranger stories here in the build-up to World Female Ranger Day on June 23rd.