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The Brave Ones

The Brave Ones


This week’s theme is titled “Female Guidelines”.

Through visual stories, our curators research the question “In what ways are female guidelines being challenged?”



Over the course of 2018, South-African photographer Brent Stirton photographed Akashinga rangers during their conservation work in Phundundu, Zimbabwe and created the series Akashinga - The Brave Ones. Akashinga are an all-female conservation ranger force, working with local communities to protect wildlife in Zimbabwe. Akashinga, meaning ‘the brave ones’ in the Shona Bantu language, empowers women from the local population to manage a network of wildlife areas.


Members of Akashinga undergo training in the bush near their hometown.

One of the few selected women who undergo sniper training.


Many western-conceived conservation models have faced difficulties in getting a foothold across the African continent. In 2017, the International Anti-Poaching Foundation (I.A.P.F.), led by former Australian Special Forces soldier Damien Mander, decided to reform their prior conservation models and organized an all-female conservation team in Zimbabwe. Wildlife protection agencies are predominantly male-led and often held up by nepotism, corruption, aggression towards local communities, alcoholism and a sense of entitlement. While traditional conservation models highlight the boundaries between humans and nature by dominating wildlife grounds, the all-female conservation model works with an innovative approach towards nature that moves away from the militarized paradigm of ‘fortress conservation’. Akashinga adapt a community-driven interpersonal focus to create long-term benefits for nature as well as the local population.




Two rangers on patrol.



The members of an Akashinga unit having dinner. All female rangers have taken on a vegan diet to demonstrate their commitment to living nature.


The women participating in the conservation work of Akashinga are mainly from disadvantaged communities and often have histories in involuntary prostitution, poverty or other adverse situations. For many of these women, the ranger force creates an opportunity to work on an alternative future. The programme offers counselling and training to the rangers, to help them rehabilitate and prepare for their tasks inside the force. Akashinga are viewed as role-models by many young girls in the communities that they work in. Units often visit local schools to educate students on the importance of conservation work and share their experiences.


Members of an Akashinga Unit visit a truckers café. Some of them used to come here when working in prostitution.


Sergeant Vimbai visits her daughters in her time off. Through her conservation work, she distanced herself from an abusive marriage and can now pay for her children’s school fees.



An Akashinga unit visiting a local school.

Akashinga represent a new approach towards conservation work that creates a space for women to be protectors and leaders. In the past, conservation models have been male-dominated forces that often proved inefficient due to the aforementioned context dependent social issues (ongoing corruption, aggression and so on). The all-female conservation model uses alternative approaches that can solve these issues and stresses the need of wildlife protection among local communities.


Members of the Akashinga arrest a wildlife poacher after discovering leopard skins and other animal parts in his home.

Members of the all-female conservation force discover skins in the basement of a notorious poacher.



However effective this initiative has been, the fact that the programme was set up by a western organization is something we should question. Is the implementation of conservation programmes by western institutes something that should be encouraged? Implementing western programmes could be seen as a form of cultural imperialism, in which western countries create local dependency on western institutes. However, the local communities that are subject to this conservation programme are often cut off from places of worship and burial, access to food, water and traditional medicine and have little opportunity for employment and tourism benefits. Therefore it is no wonder that wildlife protection is not always a priority. With these types of community-focused conservation models, conservation and poverty are battled against simultaneously, by creating opportunities and representing female rangers as role-models.



Members of Akashinga undergo house penetration training for operations against organized environmental crime.


We should also question the fact that these women were photographed by a white, male photographer. The way they are portrayed is framed by his personal perspective. What impact does the male gaze have on the way these women are presented? Is it appropriate for a foreign photographer, especially a white foreigner, to visualize their story? These are things that need to be considered when contemplating a visual story.



Akashinga member Petronella Chigumbura in the middle of a stealth and concealment training. Winning photo in the World Press Photo of the year 2019 category environment.


About the artist: Brent Stirton is a South-African photographer with an impactful career in documentary photography. He has worked for major institutions such as WWF, CNN, Human Rights Watch and has contributed to organisations such as National Geographic, The New York Times and Le Figaro amongst others. The photo of Petronella Chigumbura (30) participating in a concealment training, part of the photo series ‘Akashinga - The Brave Ones’, won the World Press Photo of the Year 2019 in the category Environment.


Check out Brent Stirton's full body of work at www.brentstirton.com or on Instagram @brentstirton.


Let us know what you think in the comments! Our weekly themes always include three photo series by different photographers. Are you interested and do you want to stay posted? Make sure to follow us on Instagram @wearecurators.


Written by Myrthe Peek

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