James Cameron may have become most famous for epic, high-octane movie hits such as The Terminator and True Lies, and sci-fi thrillers like Aliens and Avatar. However, it is his deep and abiding interest in the environment that has informed his career moves between big-budget blockbusters.
His latest film is therefore not as surprising as it may seem at first glance. Titled Akashinga: The Brave Ones, the short film follows the incredible true story of the world’s only all-female anti-poaching unit, founded and trained by tough, tattooed Australian ex-Special Forces sniper, Damien Mander.
Mander’s exterior belies a reasonable, innovative approach to tackling the problem of poaching, however. The dedicated vegan works with communities and local rangers to develop clever conservation strategies that bypass violence whenever possible.
In fact, he has often been quoted as crediting women anti-poachers, particularly, as having a specific talent in de-escalating potentially violent confrontations, and he says they are less susceptible to bribery. He has quoted research in the past, that women who work in developing countries put 90 per cent of their income back into their families, compared with 35 per cent invested by men. On top of this, from an original selection of 189 male recruits, all but three men dropped out. However, from the 36 women entering training, just three women did not complete it.
The National Geographic documentary film, produced by Cameron and directed by his longtime collaborator, Maria Wilhelm, thus follows the journey of the women rangers as they protect and help restore the wildest places of Zimbabwe on the front line of the battle against poaching. The women of the Akashinga come entirely from disadvantaged, marginalised backgrounds – amongst them are single mothers, orphans, widows and sex workers.
The Akashinga (meaning ‘the brave ones’ in the local Shona language) patrol an impressive amount of area that spans the home country of 29 different communities. Their arm of the bigger International Anti-Poaching Foundation is responsible for protecting the elephants and other wildlife within the Phundundu Wildlife Area – once set aside for trophy hunting, now a hotspot for illegal poaching.
The last 20 years have seen this area lose literally thousands of elephants to the practice. With poaching so entrenched as an easy way to considerable earnings within the local and neighbouring peoples, a talent for community mediation and liaison is just as important – but no less dangerous – than that of using a rifle. The women face heavily armed poachers, but equally, they need the discipline to enter an unwilling community and negotiate for the safety and protection of the animals.
“While we battle with an increasingly powerful viral enemy, the poaching wars rage on,” says Cameron of his film. “The Akashinga are frontline warriors, fiercely committed to protecting Africa’s most vulnerable species and to securing a positive future for their communities. They fight to ensure nature wins.”
The unit made 191 arrests in its first two and a half years of operation, since it started with a mere handful of rangers in 2017. There may have been as much as an 80 per cent decrease in elephant poaching in the Lower Zambezi Valley in Zimbabwe, with the Akashinga credited as playing a major role in this accomplishment. There is a new goal to expand the unit to 1,000 rangers by the year 2025.
“These women have achieved what few armies in history have come close to; they won the hearts and minds of the local population,” says Mander. “If given the opportunity, women will change the face of conservation forever.”
With its tagline ‘unbreakable women, unstoppable force’, the film debuted as part of the EarthXFilm Festival in late April on the National Geographic channel. The network is set to air the documentary later this year in 43 languages, across the world in 171 countries.
Cameron has had a close relationship with National Geographic for many years since becoming their ‘explorer in residence’ due to his fascination with marine exploration, diving five miles down into the New Britain Trench and even into the deepest reach of the Mariana Trench, exploring for more than three hours in the incredibly high-pressure oceanic darkness at the bottom, discovering several entirely new species and earning a spot as the first to accomplish this solo.
A firm vegan himself, Cameron also co-executive produced the vegan pay TV hit The Game Changers (along with other big names such as Jackie Chan and Arnold Schwarzenegger). He even announced a joint enterprise last year with fellow director Peter Jackson to produce plant-based products in New Zealand, from dairy and cheeses to plant-based meat.