A new all-women squad is fighting poaching in Zimbabwe as part of an ambitious programme called Akashinga, which translates as 'Brave Ones.'
Most of the women come from disadvantaged backgrounds: many are unemployed single mothers; victims of sexual and physical abuse; wives of poachers already in prison; widows or orphans.
"This is a true empowerment program because you are dealing with a highly vulnerable and damaged group of young ladies," Victor Muposhi, of Chinhoyi University of Technology, told the Guardian.
Damien Mander, the Australia-born founder of the Akashinga initiative, is a military-trained sniper who found his inspiration in the Black Mambas, the world's first female, unarmed anti-poaching unit, based in South Africa's Kruger National Park.
"Thirty-six women started our training—modeled on our special-forces training—and we pushed them hard; much harder than any training we do with men," he explains from his tented camp at a secret location in the Zambezi Valley. "Only three dropped out. I couldn't believe it."
As part of the training, the female rangers are taught how to hide, with the muzzles of their AR-15s aimed at the targets from behind tufts of grass. As soon as 'poachers' appear, they yell "Get down! Down! Now, now, now!" Moments later, the poachers are bound in handcuffs.
Rhinoceros poaching in Africa has spiked 9,000 times in the last seven years, according to a devastating new report. Other endangered animals hunted illegally for their tusks, horns and hides include elephants and leopards.
According to the African Wildlife Fund report, rhino poaching increased by more than 9,000 percent between 2007 and 2014, rising from 13 animals per year to 1,215 per year.
Between January 2005 and January 2017, poachers killed nearly 1,948 elephants and 6,296 rhinos. The Lower Zambezi Valley has lost 11,000 elephants in the past 10 years, Muposhi said.
Most of the women are directly hired from local communities, which significantly improves their chances of catching poachers because the squad knows the region inside and out.
"Developing conservation skills in communities creates more than just jobs," Muposhi told the Guardian. "It makes local people directly benefit from the preservation of wildlife." And that, he says, can save not only landmark species such as elephants but entire ecosystems.
Akashinga helps empower women, with over 70 percent of the operational costs of the project funneled directly back into the local community through employment, goods and services, according to One Green Planet.