TNRC Blog Can Women Rangers Help Decrease Corruption Rates?

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Can Women Rangers Help Decrease Corruption Rates?

Previous research on the relationship between gender and corruption suggests that women and men experience, participate in, profit and lose from natural resource corruption differently. Anti-corruption strategies aimed at improving natural resource management and conservation outcomes should therefore try to understand these differences; otherwise, they may miss critical opportunities and constraints. In that vein, Jessica Graham, with JG Global Advisory, interviewed experts on Africa’s first three female anti-poaching units. Her conversations (interviewees listed at the end of this post) suggest that these units may offer a unique contribution to preventing the types of corruption that undermine conservation in protected areas. Since the formation of these three initiatives, approximately 200 women rangers have been trained and deployed. No incidence of corruption has been reported among them, and internal reviews cited by the founders suggest that the areas under control of these units have seen a reduction in poaching compared to areas patrolled by male units.

We need to learn more about whether there truly are differences in corruption and poaching rates across male, mixed-gender and all female ranger units. The evidence doesn’t exist for a simplistic case that women are intrinsically less corrupt than men. However, some recent studies have found (strong, in at least one case) negative correlations between female leadership and corruption (at least, in terms of investigations of corruption), similar to the interviewed leaders’ reports. Correlations like these could have a variety of explanations, many of them related to differences in context and opportunity structures for women. So if female ranger units and lower corruption and poaching rates are correlated, what are some possible explanations in this case?

The Units

In 2013, the first all-female anti-poaching unit was formed in South Africa. The Black Mambas are based in the wilderness of Balule Nature Reserve in the Greater Kruger area, covering 52,000 hectares. As of 2020, approximately 30 women have been recruited, passing a rigorous interview and three-month training process that includes both physical and classroom skills, such as surveillance practices.

The Black Mambas serve on unarmed, 21-day patrols, like male rangers, which can be a challenge for women with families and small children, given the traditional gender roles around family rearing among the communities from which these rangers come. Even so, internal assessments reported dramatic improvements in self-esteem and gender role expectations. Those assessments also suggest the women have contributed to a significant reduction in poaching and snaring events in the areas they patrol.

The Akashinga, translated to “The Brave Ones” have been operating since 2017 in the Lower Zambezi Valley of Zimbabwe, where one of the largest remaining elephant populations resides. They now have over 150 rangers who have conducted nearly 200 arrests. The Akashinga are fully armed and outfitted similarly to the military, but there has been only one reported instance when a female ranger had to fire her weapon.

With the aim to create opportunities for marginalized and vulnerable members of the local community, International Anti-Poaching Foundation founder Damien Mander recruited an initial Akashinga cadre of women who were all survivors of serious sexual assault and domestic violence, orphans, or single mothers. The recruits pass a rigorous interview and physical fitness selection program originally developed by former military special forces.

The Akashinga model is now an intelligence-based approach focused on furthering community support via education, food, and nutrition programs for youth, administered by the women rangers in their communities. Today, an Akashinga position is highly respected and sought after, with younger women aspiring to become rangers.

In 2017, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) supported the creation of Team Lioness. Under the oversight of the Olgulului Community Wildlife Rangers (OCWR), who work alongside but are separate from the Kenya Wildlife Service, Team Lioness protects the traditional Maasai community land that surrounds Amboseli National Park in Kenya.

The female rangers are part of male ranger units in a mixed gender model, with one female representative coming from each of the 8 sub-clans of the Maasai Indigenous Community to ensure greater community buy-in and fuller representation among the existing male units. The selection process is rigorous, incorporating tribal leaders and based on leadership, academic achievements, physical fitness, and integrity. While the Akashinga and Black Mambas also have an education requirement, Team Lioness does not have a minimum education requirement, so many of the young women for Team Lioness are among the first in their families to secure employment.

The Possibilities

For the three female ranger units, one contributing factor is likely the Program Directors’ close monitoring for corrupt practices, which occurs across the board for all team members, staff, and units. Close managerial oversight is a key crime prevention, anti-corruption approach for police accountability reforms and, similarly, clear internal oversight procedures can help prevent corruption among rangers (regardless of their gender).

Rigorous selection and training procedures for these units may contribute as well. In societies where women are often relegated to secondary status and very traditional roles, some observers have suggested that the experience of passing challenging professional and physical qualification requirements leads to a stronger sense of pride and commitment that may help the women in these units resist temptations to become involved in corruption. This supposition aligns with other research on the ways norms and expectations can shape behavior of officials.

Research also suggests that women in some settings, including the female rangers, may have less opportunity for corruption. This could result from the perception itself that the female rangers are less corrupt. If the public perceives the women rangers as less corrupt or less likely to reciprocate a bribe or other corrupt practice, women will likely be offered fewer opportunities to engage in corruption by others. It could also be a question of access, where female rangers are excluded from corrupt networks because they are women or just relatively new to the existing system. (This might also be a reason for the correlation between women in decision-making positions and reduced corruption.)

Of course, some factors intrinsic to these specific units and their contexts are also interesting possibilities. Four factors emerged from the conversations with the unit managers that echoed findings from other studies:

  • Internal surveys from the units indicate a significant increase in self-esteem for the female rangers, which aligns with the observations about training above. This increase, and the reputational prestige of the unit, may make them more averse to corruption.
  • Interviewees reported that the female rangers excelled at information gathering, both on the level of personal encounters as well as among their social networks in the local communities and neighboring villages. IAPF, in particular, has made a conscious move towards intelligence-based counter-poaching activities, reflecting a growing recognition of the importance of professionalized intelligence practices for conservation.
  • Interviewees noted that the women rangers were more closely scrutinized, and held to a higher standard, by community elders than their male counterparts. This likely further deters corrupt behavior.
  • Finally, interviewees noted that a key component of the female ranger units’ work involved community outreach and social activities like food and nutrition programs, as well as anti-poaching and general education programs for youth. As respondents noted, rangers rely upon community engagement and support to be successful, which activities like these encourage.

The Future

There is more to learn about the impacts of all-female ranger units; we need to hear from the female rangers themselves about how they define and experience their roles and responsibilities. The cultural, community, and environmental context behind each model also certainly plays a role. The potential explanatory factors surfaced in reviewing these three initiatives do echo findings from the law enforcement, gender, and anti-corruption literature, so such research has potential. This model is catching attention and being replicated, from the recently established all-female anti-poaching unit in Kenya’s Segera Conservancy to the Lion Queens of India. This further indicates a clear appetite for, and applicability of, the findings in the conservation field.


The author would like to acknowledge the USAID-funded TNRC project for the opportunity to elevate this important issue to policymakers and practitioners, those who participated in the interviews, colleagues who contributed to the research and editing, as well as the peer reviewers.

About the Author

Jessica Graham has nearly fifteen years of experience working in private, public and non-profit sectors focused on international conservation and security issues. She previously worked as a Senior Policy Advisor at INTERPOL and for the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs.

List of Interviewees

Name Title Organization Areas of Expertise
Faye Cuevas Africa Regional Strategy Officer U.S. Department of Defense, Air Force Military, Conservation, anti-poaching, Wildlife Trafficking, supported the establishment of Team Lioness
William Moreto Associate Professor, Ph.D. University of Central Florida Academic on conservation, criminology, anti-poaching, wildlife crime and ranger perception
Tanya Wyatt Professor, Ph.D. North Umbria University Academic on criminology, corruption, conservation, anti-poaching, and wildlife crime
Craig Spencer Managing Director Trans-frontier Africa Military, Conservation, Anti-poaching, Wildlife Trafficking, Law Enforcement, Founded the Black Mambas
Chris Galliers President International Ranger Federation (IRF) Conservation, wildlife management, Law Enforcement, Ranger Protection, and President to the IRF
Damien Mander Founder and CEO IAPF Military, Training, Conservation, Anti-poaching, Wildlife Traffick-ing, Law Enforcement, Founded Akashinga
Shane Sergeant Consultant None Military, Training, Conservation, Anti-poaching, Wildlife Trafficking, Law Enforcement, supported the establishment of Kenyan group of female rangers

© Jonathan Caramanus / Green Renaissance / WWF-UK


Image attribution: © / Jen Guyton / WWF; © Brian J. Skerry / National Geographic Stock / WWF; © Georgina Goodwin / Shoot The Earth / WWF-UK; © Hkun Lat / WWF-Aus