Closed case reviews indicate that gender norms might be as harmful as they are helpful in understanding female involvement in wildlife crime, with better evidence needed to inform enforcement strategies.
The role of women in relation to wildlife crime is viewed through a lens of localised gender norms, social conventions which determine that men and women access wildlife and forestry resources in different ways. This article explores how gender norms can inform our understanding of female offending behaviour at different levels of the illegal wildlife trade (IWT) supply chain, and how gender stereotypes misinform our response. It draws upon anecdotal evidence of real IWT cases gathered during workshops, meetings, and research conducted under a RUSI programme to strengthen enforcement responses to IWT in Malawi, Namibia, Uganda and Zambia, funded by the UK government under the IWT Challenge Fund and including inputs from local authorities and NGO partners.
Using a gender norms lens to understand the role of women in IWT typically focuses enquiry on subsistence or opportunistic poaching typologies. In Malawi, the relative prevalence of female offenders in forestry crime (27% of all offenders) is attributed to their domestic role of collecting wood. Similarly, a survey of incarcerated wildlife offenders conducted by the Lilongwe Wildlife Trust revealed how pangolin traders would sometimes recruit rural women in Mozambique to catch pangolins whilst collecting firewood. In Uganda, studies document how women support local poaching groups by preparing bushmeat for sale and exploiting gender norms by (ab)using community resource access rights to neighbouring protected areas, to check on snares and transport illegal wildlife products, concealed in bundles of vegetation on their heads. This suggests women can and do play an active part in wildlife offending at the lower end of the IWT supply chain, though seldom is it suggested that women participate in the more violent pursuit of hunting itself.
However, recent anthropological research on foraging societies around the world shows women are very much active participants in subsistence or opportunistic hunting. Nearly all the African foraging societies studied showed evidence of women hunting wildlife, two-thirds of them in all-female groups, and one third targeting large game. This is not some form of emancipation: recent archaeological discoveries support these findings, suggesting earlier societies also had strong traditions of female hunting. A newspaper report in Uganda also describes how the authorities once caught an all-female hunting group with their hunting tools, skinning antelope carcasses in the bush. Such evidence contradicts the stereotypes of men as hunters and women as gatherers and suggests there may be significant gaps in our understanding of gender norms in indigenous communities.
At the other end of the supply chain, it has been argued that women can become what one study has dubbed ‘powerful matriarchs at the apex of transnational organised crime networks’. There are increasingly examples of Asian women participating at the highest levels of African-based demand syndicates. Yang Feng Glan, dubbed ‘the ivory queen’, was sentenced to 15 years in Tanzania in 2019. Quinhua Zhang and Lin Huixin, a mother and daughter, were found guilty of money laundering related charges for a major transnational ivory syndicate in Malawi in 2023. Phung Thi Lien is one of several suspects arrested in connection with a 2019 seizure of 3,299kg ivory and 423kg pangolin scales in Uganda. While the Asian origin of such ‘queenpins’ suggests cultural differences may influence gender norms for female offending, there are African examples. According to Wildlife Crime Prevention, an NGO which supports the Government of Zambia in tackling the illegal wildlife trade, arrests of transnational offenders have included 5 women since 2018. For example, in March 2022, the Zambian authorities convicted Beatrice Kasuba, aka ‘Mama Congo’ for possession of ivory, issuing an aggravated sentence due to her known role as a consolidator of regional ivory flows, trading with buyers in Botswana, Namibia and the DRC.
But what about corrupt female enablers of wildlife crime? Between supply and demand, there is a murky, middle layer of offending, where diverse actors abuse their official positions to facilitate the sourcing or smuggling of IWT. It has been argued that these are less likely to include female offenders, because of gender disparities in employment and power limiting the opportunities and increasing the costs for women of getting involved in corruption. Certainly, sectors most frequently associated with the facilitation of IWT, such as wildlife rangers, customs and police, are dominated by men. Which begs the question, as gender employment gaps narrow (or in sectors where it is less pronounced) might we see a corresponding increase in female-led corruption?
Anecdotally, evidence is scarce, but indications exist that women do participate in the corrupt enabling of IWT. In Zambia, at least 2 female government officials have been arrested for participating in wildlife crime since 2018. A rhino case in South Africa involving the Groenewald syndicate involved private sector corruption, in the form of two women alleged to have fraudulently facilitated the provision of logistical services and veterinary drugs for the purposes of rhino poaching. And in Nigeria, experts report how women are used as financial intermediaries for wildlife-related money laundering, because it is thought less suspicious than if funds flowed through the accounts of their male counterparts.
This last example shows, once again, how wildlife crime groups will exploit gender stereotypes and gender blindness in the enforcement response, to conceal criminality. This can complicate the enforcement response, as it can be challenging to untangle victimisation from calculated criminality. Yet agencies must beware the risk of assuming women in transnational organised crime networks are passive or unwitting accomplices. For example, the Government of Malawi ultimately proved a $700,000 money laundering case against Zhang and her daughter – a landmark conviction for wildlife justice across Africa – but in a RUSI-led case review workshop in Lilongwe, local authorities candidly reflected upon the initial temptation to dismiss the two women as suspects, because of their gender and youthful appearance.
These examples spotlight the importance of maintaining an open mind in investigations, as well as the need to distinguish between empirically proven normative behaviour and socially constructed gender stereotypes. Gender norms evidently can help provide genuine insight to offending behaviours, and anecdotal evidence exists that female offenders operate at every level of the IWT supply chain. However, gender stereotyping can also hinder, leading to blind spots which can be exploited by wildlife offenders of every gender, at every level. Gender norms are also dynamic and may be influenced by cultural differences and changes in sexual equality over time, altering how women commit crime. Further empirical research is needed to test such hypotheses and help strengthen response at every level of offending.
Anne-Marie Weeden is a Senior Research Fellow and the Environmental Crime portfolio lead within the Organised Crime and Policing research group, with technical expertise in combatting both community and organised crime offending in wildlife crime, especially in East and Southern Africa. She has just completed a Masters in Economic Crime at the University of Portsmouth, which included primary research on the social inequalities of corruption in wildlife justice pathways.
Main image Credit: Defence Focus via Twitter.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of RUSI, ECPR, Focused Conservation or any other institution.
 Lusaka woman jailed for 5 years for ivory in Livingstone, 8 April 2022, Live FM, Lusaka, Zambia
 Conservation with an NGO expert, Nigeria, July 2023.