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Inside Brave, Zimbabwe’s anti-poaching army for women only



In Zimbabwe, where an estimated 85,000 elephants live, the fight to save endangered species is not just a full-time job, it’s a lifeline.

One of the country’s most dedicated anti-poachers is the Akashinga, a radical all-female unit that patrols five former trophy hunting reserves for illegal activities. The well-trained, quasi-military force is an arm of the non-profit International Anti-Poaching Foundation. The Akashinga, which means “brave” in the local dialect, see themselves as guardians of the land – they protect elephants, rhinos and lions from cyanide and snare traps. Many of its members are survivors of domestic violence or sexual assault.

While some critics question the effectiveness of sending armed women to reserves to stave off notoriously dangerous and violent poachers, Akashinga̵

7;s founder Damien Mander, a former sniper with the Australian Army, says the group’s success lies in their revenues. Since 2017, Akashinga rangers have made hundreds of arrests and helped reduce elephant poaching in Zimbabwe’s Lower Zambezi Valley by 80 percent.

Brave: The brave, A new National Geographic short documentary released on World Elephant Day by James Cameron and directed by Maria Wilhelm (now available on YouTube) examines how Mander’s army puts their lives at risk every day to protect the animals that you love.

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Our colleagues at ELLE.com spoke to two of the rangers featured in the film, Nyaradzo Auxillia Hoto and Petronella Chigumbura, about the extreme risks – and high rewards – of an Akashinga woman. The 28-year-old Hoto comes from the village of Huyo in Nyamakate in the Zimbabwean Zambezi Valley. After escaping an abusive marriage in 2017, she joined Akashinga and rose through the ranks to become a sergeant. Chigumbura, 30, is a single mother of two from Zimbabwe’s Mashonaland West Province. She came to Akashinga after she divorced in 2016 and struggled to support her two young children. Now she is a sergeant assistant with enough income to build a brand new home for her family.

Why did you choose Akashinga?

Petronella Chigumbura:: As a woman, I focused on using Akashinga as a tool to help myself fight my struggle for a better life. I can now feed my children and pay school fees for them. I got a driver’s license which is a big deal for women in Africa! I am also building a big house for my children. Now I am proud to have my own future.

Comfort Auxillia Hoto:: It used to be generally accepted that a ranger was always a man, but after the Akashinga program was introduced, I wanted to prove that no job was just for men. At first, my church couldn’t believe that a woman could be a ranger. But the sky is the limit, and women can be rangers too. I managed to make my educational dreams come true. I dropped out of school many years ago. I am now a part-time student at one of the universities in Zimbabwe aiming for a Bachelor’s Degree with Honors in Science, Wildlife, Ecology and Conservation. I also managed to buy a piece of land in our community.

brave rangers

I wanted to prove that no job is only meant for men, “the brave ranger Comfort Auxillia Hoto told ELLE.com.

Courtesy Nat Geo

Protecting elephants and other wildlife from poachers can be dangerous. According to the BBC, more than 1,000 rangers have been killed by poachers, animals and accidents worldwide in the past decade. What’s the riskiest part of your job?

Stumble: Poachers use weapons, snares, and even poison. Some use cyanide, which kills a thousand animals in minutes. Many poachers here in Zimbabwe are driven by poverty, hunger and the search for survival. One day we arrested a poacher who disobeyed. He was very resilient. It was difficult for us to guess what he thought of us because he had a very sharp spear and a large knife.

Hoto: While on patrol, it is very difficult to know what the poachers will think, especially if we are chasing them. At the beginning of the lockdown in March, some elephants had succumbed to local poisoning. It is also difficult to assume that there will be no threat during patrol hours as you may encounter dangerous wildlife or even armed poachers. One day we came across a lion that was only 10 meters away [almost 33 feet] Path. It was my first time meeting a lion this close.

Zimbabwe Akashinga Ranger with elephants at Kim Butts waterhole

“I don’t want cruelty inflicted on an animal. It pierces my heart,” Akashinga ranger Petronella Chigumbura told ELLE.com.

Kim Butts

What is your relationship like with the animals you are saving?

Stumble: The way I love my children is the same as how I love wildlife and this has helped me develop a strong bond with the animals. Akashinga ladies only live as a family with the wildlife. We have a motherly, caring heart. I don’t want to see cruelty inflicted on an animal. It pierces my heart. Since our unit is a community-based program, I once had to arrest one of my relatives. I had no choice but to arrest her because saving wildlife is my top priority. If we don’t catch [poachers]Nothing is left for the next generation. Whenever we make an arrest, I feel that the animals are being defended and that justice is being done. Animals can’t talk, but I can stand up to save their lives.

Hoto: Animals were afraid of us when we started protecting them. They only thought of being shot. Animals shouldn’t suffer or feel pain for the sake of our needs and desires. You have the right to live and enjoy your life. They also have an aesthetic value, a natural beauty, and an artistic value that I find so beautiful. When justice is served in terms of arrests and convictions … Now the animals feel safe and we have a strong bond with them. We are like family.

Zimbabwe Petronella Chigumbura in a Kim suit Kim Butts

Chigumbura chases a poacher in the field.

Kim Butts

What else needs to be done to protect endangered species in Zimbabwe?

Stumble: Educating the community about the importance of wildlife and nature can be a big step in saving more animals. Supporting community members on various projects as most poachers are driven by poverty and hunger can help them feed their families. By installing modern, technologically advanced equipment to monitor wildlife movement and the actions of a poacher, rangers can save more animals as well.

Hoto: Create more vegetation projects for community members so they can feed their families and keep them busy without wasting time [hunting].

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