The ‘Brave Ones’: Zimbabwe’s women-only rangers fighting poaching

Phundundu, Zimbabwe (AFP) -Chiyevedzo Mutero was one of dozens competing in the remote Zimbabwean bush to join the all-female anti-poaching Akashinga rangers when she broke her finger.

She didn’t consider quitting – she even smiled as her finger was bandaged, before returning to the brutal military-style training.

“I’m happy, that’s why I am not crying. I’m trying to be an Akashinga girl,” the 22-year-old said.

The rangers, armed and dressed in khaki combat gear, track and arrest poachers in five reserves, all former trophy hunting areas, encompassing 4,000 square kilometres near the Zambian border in northern Zimbabwe.

If recruited, Mutero would become one of an elite few – out of 500 applicants, only 80 will make it into the ranks of the Akashinga, or “brave ones” in local dialect.

International Anti Poaching Foundation rangers stage a patrol to show their operational skills at The Akashinga Project Base Camp in Phundundu, Zimbabwe. PHOTO: AFP

Being brave will certainly count in her job of helping to protect the wildlife against poachers who are often heavily armed.

But all the women are also “survivors”, selected for the ranger recruitment programme for having overcome adversity, often abuse, in their past.

Mutero married young and moved to South Africa with her husband and daughter, where she was physically abused by her mother-in-law.

She returned to rural Zimbabwe to raise her daughter alone and broke as her husband refused to send money.

“But now I am here to empower myself to take care of my child,” she said, proudly talking of the importance of the country’s wildlife and its conservation.

Mutero made it into the last 160 potential recruits, who faced a series of gruelling tests of their physical and mental strength in the Phundundu Wildlife Area.

Over several days, the women raced under the beating sun, wrestled each other and a dozen even lifted a giant tree trunk over their heads.

Only the toughest make the cut.

Damien Mander, 39, a former military sniper in the Australian army who also worked in the private security sector in Iraq, started the programme in 2017 as part of the non-profit International Anti-Poaching Foundation that he founded.

“We were trying to create an opportunity for the most marginalised women in some of the toughest regions, in one of the poorest countries on the continent,” he said.

“They are all survivors of serious sexual assault, domestic violence, AIDS orphans, single mothers, abandoned wives.”

“We didn’t want great CVs, actually we wanted scrappers. People that knew what it was like to have to fight to survive, and that’s exactly what we got,” he told AFP.

“What we didn’t realise is we were getting the toughest.”

Hardships faced by the women in rural Zimbabwe also steel them for life on the frontline against poaching, says one of the trainers Paul Wilson, also a former soldier.

“These guys are used to walking a long way with a 20-litre bucket of water on their head, spending all day digging or hoeing in the field, carrying large amounts of firewood… these girls know how to work,” he said.

Mander said that his time in Iraq had helped him understand that “law enforcement isn’t about biceps and bullets”.

It is more about establishing relationships and long-term ties with communities, he said, adding the women also had the ability “to naturally de-escalate tension”.

All Akashinga rangers come from villages near the area they patrol, so they can work with the locals and have a vested interest.