AWF Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool narrows gender gap in wildlife conservation

Nyasha Dube

IN the face of increasing effects of poaching and biodiversity loss, women rangers in Zimbabwe are rising to the conservation challenge and are slowly but surely claiming a major stake in the space.

Mbire wildlife scouts. (Picture by Ndanatsiwa Tagwirei)

There has been a rise of dedicated all-female ranger groups in Zimbabwe and beyond, committed to harnessing digital technology into wildlife conservation which was in sync with this year’s International Women’s Day commemorated under the theme “DigitALL: Innovation and Technology for Gender Equality”.

Examples of such groups include Zimparks Female Rangers, Female Community Wildlife Scouts in Mbire district, Akashinga Rangers in Hurungwe and Team Lioness Rangers in Kenya among others.

While Zimbabwe is home to a rich diversity of iconic species such as elephants, rhinos, lions, to mention a few, the country faces numerous threats to its wildlife. These include poaching, habitat loss, human-wildlife conflict, and disease.

Women are however increasingly at the forefront of efforts to conserve, protect and manage these resources, despite facing many challenges in the previously male-dominated field. Challenges include physical demands, long hours, and cultural biases. 

Women are bringing unique skills such as empathy, communication, and community engagement to the wildlife conservation space. As primary carers and anchors of the community, female rangers are able to build trust and support for conservation initiatives, as well as empower women and girls to take part in conservation efforts.

As an adaptation strategy, women ranger groups, with support of organisations such as African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) operating in the Mid-Zambezi Valley landscape, have resorted to using digital technology tools to advance the cause of wildlife conservation, guided by their 10-year Zimbabwe Conservation Strategy (2020 to 2030) goals which speaks to poaching reduction and tracking. 

One such tool is the Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool (SMART), a tool that was designed to assist wildlife scouts and rangers to assess and track wildlife habitats, manage anti-poaching patrols and protect endangered species. 

“Upon realisation that rangers were using outdated and obsolete analogue data capturing methods, we saw it fit to introduce new and modern ICT technologies such as SMART to improve the monitoring process and protect endangered species in our priority landscapes,” said AWF Country Director Olivia Mufute in an interview.

“…The cyber trackers (handheld ruggedized smartphones) with SMART software are efficient in documenting wildlife species sighted, GPS coordinates and important information captured by rangers during anti-poaching patrols. SMART technology simplifies the collection of real time data, supervision of field rangers and improves the utilisation of SMART data to make informed decisions critical for law enforcement, and preparation of reports for several conventions including the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES),” she said.

Mufute says the use of the tool has not only empowered women to take a leading role in wildlife conservation but has also had a ripple effect as the women rangers have been willing to impart the knowledge on other women as well. 

“The tool has eased the workload for female rangers as the collection of data has become faster and easier, without risk of losing information like before when they used notebooks. Rangers can now locate where poaching and other illegal activities are happening, their anti-poaching deployments are now report based because SMART gives accurate information about what is happening on ground. Using SMART, rangers can now identify areas where urgent interventions are needed, and this goes a long way in protecting the endangered species that risk extinction if necessary steps are not taken,” Mufute said.

Mana Pools National Park, a world heritage site, bird area and Ramar site with cultural and archeological importance in the Mid Zambezi Valley has seen a reduction in poaching over the past years as a result of engaging and capacitating women rangers with digital technology skills.

“The major challenge that is here is the commercial poaching of elephants. I am however pleased to say we are currently on top of the situation. In 2019, we lost three elephants but up to now none has been lost to poaching and this is because of the support that we are getting from our conservation partners like AWF and other players involved,” Edmore Ngosi, Mana Pools National Park Senior Area Manager said during a Mid Zambezi Valley Media Tour organised by AWF and Zimparks in November 2022

The rise of social media and mobile applications has also enabled easy connection and information sharing, making it easy to mobilise support. 

Women-led initiatives in wildlife conservation such as Wild Is Life Trust, Painted Dog Conservation, and Imire Rhino and Wildlife Conservation are using social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to raise awareness of conservation issues, showcase their activities and achievements, and solicit donations and volunteers.

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