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Every day in Zimbabwe, a battle rages against wildlife poaching. The black and white Rhino has been hammered, and the days of the worlds largest land mammal- the African Elephant, are numbered as well unless the poachers can be stopped. Each year more than 20,000 elephants are killed.
It’s an insidious trade, the ivory tusks are hacked from a dead or dying elephant and sold for an exuberant price before being carved into ornaments and jewellery, with China being the biggest consumer market.
But now, in a determined fight to save the greatest creatures on earth, an unlikely band of female rangers are putting their lives on the line on the frontline against wildlife poachers.
Tonight on 60 Minutes reporter Tom Steinfort travels to Zimbabwe to meet the incredible team of warrior women and share their mission to save the African elephants.
The Akashinga women – ‘the brave ones’ – patrol and protect a 30,000 hectare reserve which borders the word heritage listed Mana Pools National Park. They are the last line of defence between the poachers and the elephants.
This revolutionary team was the brainchild of Damien Mander, a former Australian navy clearance diver turned special forces sniper, who assembled this group of local women and started training them to become rangers.
There was a lot of local opposition to this idea, mostly from men who believed the women weren’t up to the job and didn’t belong in uniform.
Mander gambled that training and paying local women to protect wildlife could prove a master stroke in winning over the local community against the poachers.
So far so good. In the 15 months they have been operating the Akashinga rangers have made over 80 arrests and taken out some major crime syndicates.
“This is the only reserve in this entire world that’s completely managed and protected by women, and they are kicking arse” Mander tells Steinfort.
They’re smashing traditional gender roles in Zimbabwe, and in doing so, have earned the respect of their communities.
“These women were ridiculed on the way to work, the first day they were told to go back to their house, go back to the fields,” Mr Mander says.
“Those men ridiculed them on day one. But now, they’ve taken out hardened poachers so the men respect it.”
The Akashinga women praise Mr Mander for changing their lives. Coming from backgrounds of hardship and unimaginable trauma, the women have been able to built proud and successful lives and careers, honouring their families and communities.
But the real object of their attention is the reserve’s elephant population. In the northern Zimbabwe region alone, over 8,000 elephants have been killed in the past 15 years.
The female rangers are determined to see this number fall all the way to zero – and they’ll use deadly force if they have to.
“If [the poachers] tamper with my elephants, I will catch them,” ranger Vimbai Kumire says.
Their dedication to protecting the reserve’s wildlife is unwavering and passionate, and the strength they’ve shown to get there is beyond expectations.
“I’m a strong woman, I’m strong enough,” Vimbai says.