Sgt. Vimbai Kumire, 33, and her all-female wildlife ranger team, the Akashinga, are among the fiercest protectors of African animals.
The rangers are an arm of the nonprofit International Anti-Poaching Foundation, which manages Zimbabwe’s Phundundu Wildlife Area, a 115-square-mile former trophy hunting tract in the Zambezi Valley, the National Geographic reported.
The Akashinga (“brave ones” in the Shona language) patrol Phundundu, which borders 29 communities. The proximity of people and animals sometimes leads to conflicts such as the one Kumire’s headed to now, involving a leopard.
At the scene, Kumire wades into an angry crowd. Standing only five feet two inches tall, she moves calmly and confidently through the emotionally charged group, speaking softly but firmly, the report said.
Ten injured men slowly come forward. One has a bandage on his cheek, another’s arm is wrapped in blood-stained cotton. Eight others are nursing scratches and punctures.
Conservation officials had collected the leopard’s carcass and accused the men of wrongdoing, inflaming the crowd. The injured men say the leopard attacked, but based on their minor wounds, the rangers are skeptical.
Killing wildlife without a permit is a criminal offense. But the leopard’s skin, teeth, claws, and bones — worth hundreds of dollars on the black market — represent a month’s salary in Zimbabwe’s impoverished economy.
With the carcass secured and the events duly recorded, the team’s job now is to remind the community they’re here to help with wildlife-human interactions. The women load the wounded men into their truck and take them to the local clinic.
Scenes like this are the essence of the Akashinga’s mission — its founder, Damien Mander, a tattoo-covered Australian and former special forces soldier, has trained game rangers in Zimbabwe for more than a decade.
His experiences serving in Iraq and on the front lines of Africa’s poaching war have taught him that change of any kind can’t happen without buy-in from the community, the report said.
“Local people have a vested interest in where they come from, where they live,” he says. “Foreigners don’t.”
With that local-first mentality, Mander turned to Phundundu’s surrounding villages — specifically their women — to fill the ranks of the Akashinga. After years of training male rangers, he concluded that in some ways women were better suited for the job.
He found they were less susceptible to bribery from poachers and more adept at de-escalating potentially violent situations. Working women in developing countries invest 90% of their income in their families, compared with 35% for men.
In this regard, the rangers demonstrate a key conservation principle: Wildlife is worth more to the community alive than it is dead at the hands of poachers, the report said.
Mander sought women who had suffered trauma: AIDS orphans, victims of sexual assault or domestic abuse. Who better to task with protecting exploited animals, Mander reasoned, than women who had suffered from exploitation?
He modeled his selection course on special forces training, subjecting the women to three days of nonstop exercises designed to test their teamwork skills while being wet, cold, hungry and tired. Of 37 recruits who started the course, 16 were chosen for the training program; only three quit.
Years ago Mander ran a similar course for 189 men. At the end of day one, all but three had quit. “We thought we were putting [the women] through hell,” Mander says. “But it turns out, they’ve already been through it.”
Before they return to their base the next morning, they’ll arrest the alleged leopard poacher. The next night, they’ll catch a suspected elephant poacher. In the hours between, they’ll continue their patrols.
It’s results like this that show Mander his instinct was right.
“Women like this can change everything,” he says.