An all-female army of wildlife rangers sounds like a gimmick, but as a BBC story by correspondent Rachel Nuwer last September showed, it isn’t. The project is the brainchild of Australian Defence Force special-operations sniper Damien Mander, who had been hired to stem a wave of poaching in Zimbabwe’s Phundundu Wildlife Park, a 115-square-mile former trophy-hunting area, ground zero in a larger ecosystem that’s home to some 11,000 elephants. The women, 16 in all, come from backgrounds of abuse and deprivation, and so are motivated to prove what they can do. The women feel empowered, and are more likely to improve their communities in the process. They chose the name “Akashinga” themselves, after Mander asked them to come up with a name for their unit. Akashinga means “the Brave Ones,” in the local Shona language.
“There’s a saying in Africa,” Mander told BBC. “‘If you educate a man, you educate an individual. But if you educate a woman, you educate a nation.’ We’re seeing increasing evidence that empowering women is one of the greatest forces of change in the world today.”
The situation is serious. In just seven years, Africa’s elephant populations have crashed by 30%, largely due to poaching.
Stirton’s World Press Photo nominated image is a portrait of Petronella Chigumbura, age 30, in the field, where her specialty is in military stealth and concealment. Akashinga’s stated aim is to work with rather than against local communities, Stirton explained in his submission. This is especially relevant today, as a renewed debate over whether trophy hunting can help fund conservation efforts, in wilderness areas where elephant populations have grown to the point where an ever-shrinking ecosystem can no longer sustain herd animals that eat up to 500 kgs. of trees and agricultural crops a day. Unlike trophy hunting, conservationists argue, finding ways to get local communities involved in serving and protecting wild animals is a long-term solution rather than a short-term fix.
For his part, Stirton understands that a single powerful image is worth a thousand words — at least — if, at the end of the day, the idea is to galvanize people to act.
The same could be said of any of this year’s six finalists of course. A single image can indeed change the world. And that, controversies aside, is what the World Press Photo Awards are all about.
The 62nd Annual World Press Photo Awards will be handed out April 11 in Amsterdam, Netherlands.