Akashinga, the all-female Zimbabwean army protecting elephants from poachers

With many of Africa’s key species, including elephants, reaching levels near extinction, Akashinga has become a radical, new and highly effective weapon that has been formed to fight against poaching.

Founded in Zimbabwe by former Australian special forces soldier and anti-poaching leader Damien Mander, Akashinga, a women-only team of rangers, drawn from the abused and marginalised, is revolutionising the way animals are protected and how communities are empowered.

There are an estimated 85,000 elephants in Zimbabwe and the fight to save vulnerable species isn't just a full-time job but a matter of life or death.

The Akashinga, which means "brave ones" in local language shona, view themselves as guardians of the land—protecting elephants, rhinos, and lions from cyanide and snare traps.

The highly-trained, quasi-military troop is an arm of the nonprofit International Anti-Poaching Foundation which was founded in 2009 and has transformed a traditionally adversarial approach to conservation into an innovative, empowering and gender-diverse model to protect wildlife and habitats.

Akashinga: The Brave Ones, a new National Geographic short documentary released on World Elephant Day from James Cameron and directed by Maria Wilhelm, explores how Mander's army puts their lives on the line every day to protect the animals they love.

Poaching has taken a severe toll on the elephant population of Zimbabwe. By 2017, numbers in the Lower Zambezi region had declined by 40 percent since 2001. According to the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) as many as 35,000 elephants are killed in Africa each year.

Illegal trophy hunting and poaching has become such a large part of Africa’s economy that there has become little incentive to promote conservation.

Mander’s innovative approach to conservation calls for community buy-in rather than full-on armed assault against poachers.

Over 60 percent of Akashinga’s operational costs go directly back to local communities, and up to 80 percent of this goes directly to households.

Akashinga plans to expand its conservation work. By 2025, they intend to recruit 1,000 women to protect a network of 20 former hunting reserves.