Police officer packs it all in to protect elephants in Africa

All that comes between Jade Buitendag and the lions roaming around the Zimbabwean bush at night is the wall of her tent.

And it’s not uncommon to face snakes or hyenas on the way to the bathroom.

“But falling asleep under the stars while the elephants walk by your tent and waking up to beautiful sunrises makes it all worth it.”

Seven months ago the 25-year-old’s world looked very different. She’d been a police officer for three years and was working in Tauranga on the public safety team, responding to 111 calls.

“While working during the Covid lockdowns I re-evaluated my life and what I wanted to give and get out of it. I loved my job as a police officer, I was in a beautiful part of the country working with amazing colleagues but something was missing and felt I could give more of myself to a job that I felt more passionate about.

“Police work is difficult, you never get called when someone’s having a good day and I wanted more from life than having to deal with traumatic experiences every day. It catches up on you.”

Buitendag, who was born in Zimbabwe but moved to New Zealand with her family when she was 6, began watching documentaries on the ivory trade and came across the International Anti-Poaching Foundation. National Geographic had released a documentary about the IAPF’s Akashinga, Africa’s first armed, all-female anti-poaching unit fighting to protect wildlife in Zimbabwe.

“And to top it off they are a vegan organisation.

“It just blew me away, I thought to myself … Now that’s where I want to be. So I booked my ticket, quit my job and followed my heart all the way to the middle of the bush in Zimbabwe.”

'As soon as I open my tent zip it's the wilderness'

Buitendag’s camp is in the Phundundu Wildlife Area in the Zambezi Valley in northern Zimbabwe. She is now the assistant habitat manager as part of the IAPF’s habitat team, working alongside ecologists, focusing on reserve maintenance and conservation projects.

Every day is different. It could include helping deploy the Akashinga rangers into the bush, relocating snakes from the local village, chasing elephants out of farmers’ fields or moving cattle out of the reserve so they don’t get eaten by a lion.

“It really depends what the day has in store for us. Some days I spend 13 hours driving in the bush, up crazy mountains in 4×4 terrain.

“Our habitat team does a lot of behind-the-scenes work in the concession, making sure we have a good environment for all our beautiful wildlife. It’s amazing to think that every little bird, insect, tree has its part to play in helping other things survive, that’s why it’s so important we not only look out for our elephants, but also the smaller creatures.”

During the dry season she fights bush fires that have been set by poachers.

“It can be real hard work fighting fire in 35- to 40-degree heat. I was out working in 48-degree heat the other day which is a massive contrast to the cold temperatures we get in little old New Zealand.”

Other duties include setting or picking up camera traps and entering data, maintaining and preserving water sources and creating new roads.

“We help study, protect and preserve the flora and fauna of the reserve and keep track of wildlife and their habitat to ensure not only our elephants are being protected but we notice what impact and effect larger animals have on the environment for all other mammal species.”

At the end of the day she might go for a run before it gets dark and more animals come out.

“I have pepper spray for the possibility I may come into close contact with a large cat when running – not entirely sure the pepper spray will save me but it gives me some form of reassurance. But apart from that I feel relatively safe in the bush. I felt more at-risk every day as a police officer, pulling over vehicles or walking into someone’s home not knowing what that person was in possession of.”

Her scariest moment so far was stumbling across a Mozambique spitting cobra on the way to the shower.

“It’s not something you want to come across. I now wear gumboots at night. We have so many venomous snakes here, including the black mamba.

“A few nights ago I was lying in bed in my tent and there was a lion about 250 metres away from my tent making some uninviting roars. I love it, it’s such an incredible feeling to be immersed in the wilderness with nature on your doorstep but also prevents you from using the loo at nighttime.

“Our camp is situated in the middle of the bush, we don’t have fences, so as soon as I open my tent zip it’s the wilderness. My colleague actually bumped into a hyena on the way to the toilet, which she laughs about now.”

'Far more powerful than bullets and biceps'

The IAPF was started in 2009 by Australian Damien Mander, an Iraq war veteran who served in the Australian military as a naval clearance diver and special operations sniper.

He had travelled to Africa in search of a new adventure and with the aim of trying his hand at anti-poaching work for six months. During that work, he came across a buffalo trapped in a wire snare trap, her pelvis ripped during her three-day struggle to escape. After she was euthanised she birthed a stillborn calf.

In that moment, his life changed forever. He saw the experience as a rebirth for himself. He liquidated his property portfolio in Australia, established the IAPF and has remained in Africa and committed to conservation since.

“I don’t feel I have a job, I feel I have a purpose, which is the most elusive thing for many people.”


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The IAPF now protects eight nature reserves – or 526,000ha – in Zimbabwe, with the aim to increase that to 20 in five years.

Mander admits he came from “the ultimate boys’ club” in special operations. When he started his new career, women were outnumbered on the wildlife ranger frontline at a ratio of up to 100 to 1.

In 2017 he read an article about the US Army Rangers training the first group of women for frontlines. Male rangers from the unit had saved his life a decade earlier in Baghdad when he was working for the Australian military and he decided that if they had started putting women through its ranks, there was no reason why they couldn’t be wildlife rangers.

So the Akashinga – which means “the brave ones” in the Shona language of Zimbabwe – unit was born. The opportunity to join was given to the most marginalised women in the local communities. They were survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence, AIDS orphans, single mothers and sex workers.

“What we didn’t understand with this approach was that we were getting the toughest,” says Mander. “These women had spirit and character. Those are the key ingredients for a recruit ranger.

“Women have a natural tendency to de-escalate tension with local communities. Instead of combat we are having interpersonal relationships with the communities the women grew up in. That is far more powerful than bullets and biceps.”

Mander says the area they patrol was home to one of the largest remaining elephant populations left on Earth but had lost 8000 to poaching in the 16 years prior to the programme.

In the first three years of operations, Akashinga rangers made more than 300 arrests. By 2019 that had helped drive an 80 per cent downturn in elephant poaching across the lower Zambezi Valley region. A 399 per cent increase in wildlife sightings was also recorded.

Ninety-five per cent of Akashinga staff come from within 20km of the boundaries they protect so their incomes are going back into the communities. According to UN Women, women spend 80 to 90 per cent of their salary on family and local community compared with 30 to 40 per cent of men.

It's an exciting day when you get to hear Vimbai Kumire, Sergeant of Akashinga, speak alongside Damien Mander as they…

“Most of the women who have been with us for more than 18 months have bought their own land and built their own houses. For many, that means getting their families back together.”

Mander and all of his rangers are vegan: “Being a conservationist, it didn’t make sense to me to be going out all day, trying to protect one group of animals and coming home and putting another group of animals on the fire, and supporting an industry that is responsible for massive deforestation and the death of over 100 billion animals a year.

“We pay people to do things to animals that none of us would engage in personally; just because we don’t see it up close, doesn’t mean we’re not responsible.”

'My life is a complete contrast to last year'

Buitendag is usually based in camp for three weeks at a time, although it can vary – the past rotation was seven weeks. She gets a week off at a time, which she will often spend in the Zimbabwean capital of Harare or exploring other parts of the country.

“Our accommodation is tented camps, they are very basic but they have everything we need. Our camp is run by solar power and we are investigating other ways to implement a more sustainable lifestyle in the bush.

“We have amazing chefs from the local village who make us delicious meals three times a day, all vegan. I’ve got to keep up with my running so I don’t put on too much weight … it’s very easy to when someone else is cooking, especially when it’s so delicious.”

She says she “found my best friend in the bush” – another young female colleague in her team who she shares a tent with. The Akashinga rangers are also part of their camp.

“You become really close with these amazing women when you see them every day. I consider a lot of them as my sisters.”

Buitendag’s world now feels very far away from Covid-19.

“It feels like it’s almost non-existent here. We have a curfew here which means that you can’t travel between certain hours and you have to wear your mask in public but life feels very normal here.”

She does miss the ocean back in New Zealand and going surfing with friends, hiking in the bush without a worry that something’s going to eat her, a good Vietnamese restaurant and her family. But she doesn’t regret her decision.

“My life is a complete contrast to last year. I was working crazy shifts, feeling pretty stressed with life, dealing with offenders and patrolling the streets of Tauranga for crime.

“Now I’m in the middle of the African bush, with lions and hyenas outside my tent, elephants and buffaloes causing road blocks and learning so many things about the trees, birds and wildlife. Life feels a lot less stressful here. People are so happy, and so welcoming and I really feel like I made the best decision to move my life to Zimbabwe. I feel like I’m learning a lot about who I am as a person, which I feel we lose in modern-day life, absorbed by technology and materialistic objects. Africa certainly brings you back down to earth.”

As for the future, she can see herself “settling down” in Zimbabwe.

“It feels like home.”

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