An all-female team of sharpshooters is protecting animals in Zimbabwe from poaching.
Zimbabwe is a pretty conservative country by anybody’s standards. Dominated by men, forced marriages by abducting women is common, and spousal abuse often goes unreported. Perhaps that’s why when an all-women anti-poaching team was created, none of them broke from the intensive training they were put through.
No amount of special forces training could compare to what these women had already been through.
They’re called the Akashinga team, or “The Brave Ones” in a local dialect, the team has already arrested 80 armed poachers since their inception in 2017. The team was founded by Damien Mander at the International Anti-Poaching Foundation and operates entirely by private donors.
"When I wear this suit no one can see me, and I can hide from the poacher," said the team’s star sniper, Petronella Chigumbura, in an interview with CBS.
A former Australian special operations soldier, Mander created the team using skills and knowledge he’d learned in the armed forces. However, accepting an all-female team required him to overcome his own prejudices from the military.
"I have built a career across three continents by bringing hardened men to the point of breaking and then rebuilding them into what we need on the front lines, and women never factored into the equation," Mander said. "We not only prided ourselves on being the only all-male unit in the military but we ridiculed units that transitioned into accepting females."
His opinion changed after seeing how women handled themselves during the US invasion of Iraq. "For us, counter-insurgency in Iraq was about countering insurgents, it's a male mindset, you're looking for a fight. Women ... actually want to solve a problem and have a conversation. It's a big difference."
Getting into Akashinga is still not easy. Women undergo months of intensive training and then get set into the bush for weeks at a time, taking them away from families and loves ones.
However, the sense of empowerment that comes from their training and their duty is something that will allow the Akashinga to overcome Zimbabwe’s conservative culture and any poacher that takes aim at a protected animal.
"I can do something great, I can save myself,” said Nyaradzo Hoto. “I can see that no man is going to challenge me again."