Akashinga – The International Anti-Poaching Foundation. Photo by Brent Stirton.

They are a group of women who have survived domestic violence and rape. They were unwanted. Some were cast aside by their communities, but these women are taking on poachers, and winning. Their work is changing the way at-risk animals are protected in Africa and giving them a new purpose in life.

The Akashinga, or “the brave ones,” in Shona, are Zimbabwe’s first all-female anti-poaching squad. Though they have a reputations of being sharpshooters, they arrested eighty people in 2018 without firing a shot.

The members of the squad are all 18-35 years old and are survivors of poverty, rape, and domestic abuse so horrific that many of the women do not want to discuss it publicly. They are single mothers or abandoned wives. They are AIDS orphans.

Nyaradzo Hoto fled from her husband — a brave step in a conservative African country — and eventually divorced him.

“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. “Some times he clubs, he hits me.”

Hoto doesn’t like talking about it but she told us he frequently beat her so brutally she could barely stand up afterwards.

“I just told myself I am wasting my time. I have to do something. It’s too much now.”

“I can do something great, I can save myself, I can see that no man is going to challenge me again.”

Damien Mander, a former Australian Special Operations soldier, founded the International Anti-Poaching Foundation, the organization the women work for.

I’m a former special ops sniper, who went from training Iraq paramilitary forces, to training the world’s first all-female ranger unit protecting a nature reserve from poachers. My name is Damien Mander, IAPF founder, AMA

In a Nov. 27, 2018, ask me anything post on Reddit, Damien said the women are trained at the basic infantry stage. Women an men in the IAPF are disciplined and motivated. They believe their job is the most important one in the world.

The women work the intel so well that most arrests are made at 0300hrs in the dark of night the the target is sound asleep.

Other programs have resulted in serious injuries, Damien said. This is a result of fighting organized crime. The IAPF currently works in four countries in southern and east Africa, but they continue to grow.

During the initial interviews for the Akashinga, ninety women showed up. Damien told the BBC the women “weren’t victims of circumstance, these were victims of men.” Thirty-seven women made it through the initial three-day tryout. They were hungry, tired, cold, and wet.

Modelled after special forces selection, the exhausted women were challenged with various endurance and team building trials, such as packing up a 200-pound (90kg) tent, dragging it up a mountain with their legs tied together, and then reassembling it.

Only three women dropped out. Damien has spent his career training men and bringing them to their breaking point. He admitted he was shocked by the grit of these women.

“The distance a person puts between suffering and breaking is what defines character, and these women had it,”

There was pushback from local men who said the job was too difficult for women to do. The women decided the men were just jealous and carried on with their work.

One of the most impressive part of the all-female squad is their effectiveness, which has reduced the need to be militaristic.

We used to have helicopters, but as women deescalate the requirement for militarisation is much less.

It’s not the AR-15 or .308 bolt action rifles that get the job done. It’s the women and their astute skills in de-escalation. In turn, the women are empowered, arrests are less violent and communities improve.

“There’s a saying in Africa, ‘If you educate a man, you educate an individual, but if you educate a woman, you educate a nation’,” Mander says. “We’re seeing increasing evidence that empowering women is one of the greatest forces of change in the world today.”

According to the BBC, Phundundu is the first nature reserve in the world to be managed and protected by an all-women ranger unit.

In many cultures, particularly on the African continent, a woman who has been raped or escaped domestic abuse is considered a burden that needs to be taken care of. The IAPF sees them as a valuable resource that can make the world a better place.

The women also spend time in local schools doing outreach to teach the importance of conservation and saving wildlife.

Damien said the need for the IAPF, in general, is because trophy hunting has gone too far.

1: If I killed someone in your family to eat or hang on my wall, would you say that is ethical? 2: My morals are not intertwined with policy, rather on what I think to be right or wrong.

Hunting has gone far beyond conservation. There are over 11,000 game reserves in South Africa. Mostly fenced off, many into tiny areas. Is that really conservation? Also, the diminishing hunting industry in other countries means that it is not just ‘the old bull’ being taken, but anything that can turn a dollar. Hunting is also continually used as a way to legitimise illegal activities. I get your argument, but we are using a different model. With Akashinga we put the same amount into the local community every 34 days as what trophy hunting did per annum.

After training and working protecting the animals, many of the women no longer see themselves as broken or damaged.

Kelly Lyee Chigumbura, a survivor of rape, was forced to drop out of school after the assault. She had dreamed of becoming a nurse. She was awarded custody of her daughter in September 2018, due to employment as an Akashinga.

“Since becoming employed as a ranger, I’m now able to take care of my child,” she says. “I can go back to high school and I can have a life as an experienced professional.”

Mervis Chiware, a counsellor and lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe, was recruited by Damien to help the women, who are thriving in their new lives.

Chiware – a survivor of abuse herself – now regularly helps them with personal issues, including relationships, sexual health and overcoming past trauma. “I tell them that building one’s person is very important, because the moment you become self-reliant, with your own job, the [sic] enables you to make decisions for yourself,” she says. “It gives you the power to get out of abusive relationships.”

The Akashinga once had their power taken away from them, but they have become empowered in their new lives saving their communities and the beauty that surrounds them.