'The Brave Ones': Meet Zimbabwe's All-Female Sharpshooting Anti-Poacher Squad

"Zimbabwe's hidden weapon against poachers"

Zimbabwe, Zambezi: Women of the first all-female Zimbabwean poaching unit patrol Phundundu Wildlife Park. The women who are either former prostitutes, victims of violence or abandoned mothers, are called 'Akashinga', or 'the brave ones'.
Picture alliance / Contributor / Getty Images

They're the kind of subjects that movies are made of, except the truth is sometimes stranger than fiction. Zimbabwe calls them the Akashinga squad ("The Brave Ones"), an all-female band of sharpshooting anti-poacher hunters, and they mean business.

"Abused and disadvantaged women have become Zimbabwe's hidden weapon against poachers who kill elephants and rhinos for their tusks and horns," says CBS News of the squad. "The Akashinga squad is Zimbabwe's first all-female anti-poaching team that has quickly earned a top reputation as sharpshooters."

In the past year, this band of "Brave Ones" has arrested over 80 armed poachers, many of whom pose as much of a threat to human life as they do to animal life. According to Save The Rhino, "at least 1,000 rangers have died in the line of duty in a decade, with many more unreported casualties."

"In 2015 alone, 42% of ranger deaths were due to attacks by poachers, compared to the 17% killed by wild animals," reports the organization.

No doubt, the Akashinga squad performs a tremendous service. Sometimes they operate in full stealth and the poachers have no idea of their presence. Petronella Chigumbura, so-called "the star sniper of the squad," often dons a camouflage suit while patrolling solo at night.

"When I wear this suit no one can see me, and I can hide from the poacher," Chigumbura told CBS News foreign correspondent Debora Patta in a report for "Down to Earth" by CBS News on Facebook Watch.

Recruited by former Australian Special Ops soldier Damien Mander, many of the women come from difficult backgrounds, from crippling poverty to domestic violence. Member Nyaradzo Hoto spoke of the horrors of fleeing her allegedly abusive husband, which is not exactly the easiest task in an African country.

"The abusive thing was refusing me to find a job, to look for a job, and to proceed with my education. That's where the fight starts," she said. "Sometimes he clubs, he hits me."

Hoto's husband allegedly frequently beat her so badly that she could not stand up sometimes. Today, with her high-caliber rifle, she has a newfound sense of confidence.

"I just told myself I am wasting my time. I have to do something. It's too much now," she said. "I can do something great, I can save myself, I can see that no man is going to challenge me again."

Damien Mander initially had misgivings about leading an all-female squad of soldiers but now sees their tremendous benefit as sharpshooters.

"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," said Mander. "We not only prided ourselves on being the only all-male unit in the military but we ridiculed units that transitioned into accepting females."

"The whole time it was just us fighting against our egos," he said. "For us, counter-insurgency in Iraq was about countering insurgents, it's a male mindset, you're looking for a fight. Women, I don't know, you actually want to solve a problem and have a conversation. It's a big difference."

Mander sees the symbolic undertone of maternal women fighting on the side of mother nature.

"I think women, given the opportunity, will change the face of conservation forever," said Mander. "I think we have seriously under-estimated one of the most powerful forces in nature."

The anti-poaching life has its drawbacks. Like any soldier's life, the women often go weeks and even months at a time without seeing their families. Chigumbura, for instance, only gets to see her children every two months.

As noted by Save The Rhino, anti-poaching squads typically aim to arrest poachers and only engage in lethal force when fired upon.

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