These women survived domestic abuse, now they're sharpshooters protecting animals from poachers

/ CBS News

Women protecting rhinos from poachers

Abused and disadvantaged women have become Zimbabwe's hidden weapon against poachers who kill elephants and rhinos for their tusks and horns. The Akashinga squad, or "The Brave Ones," is Zimbabwe's first all-female anti-poaching team that has quickly earned a top reputation as sharpshooters. They've arrested 80 armed poachers in the past year.

Petronella Chigumbura, the star sniper of the squad, wears a full camouflage suit for solo night patrols.

"When I wear this suit no one can see me, and I can hide from the poacher," Chigumbura told CBS News foreign correspondent Debora Patta in a report for "Down to Earth" by CBS News on Facebook Watch.

The women all come from disadvantaged backgrounds, ranging from desperate poverty to horrific domestic violence. They were recruited by Damien Mander, a former Australian Special Operations soldier and a most unlikely champion of women's rights.

Survivors of domestic violence trained to become Zimbabwe's first all-female anti-poaching team. CBS News

"I have built a career across three continents by bringing hardened men to the point of breaking and then rebuilding them into what we need on the front lines, and women never factored into the equation," said Mander. "We not only only prided ourselves on being the only all-male unit in the military but we ridiculed units that transitioned into accepting females."

Mander said he changed his mind about female soldiers where he saw the success of U.S. women service members in Iraq.

"The whole time it was just us fighting against our egos," he said. "For us, counter-insurgency in Iraq was about countering insurgents, it's a male mindset, you're looking for a fight. Women, I don't know, you actually want to solve a problem and have a conversation. It's a big difference."

Nyaradzo Hoto fled from her husband — a brave step in a conservative African country — and eventually divorced him.

"The abusive thing was refusing me to find a job, to look for a job, and to proceed with my education. That's where the fight starts," she said. "Some times he clubs, he hits me."

Hoto doesn't like talking about it but she told us he frequently beat her so brutally she could barely stand up afterwards.

"I just told myself I am wasting my time. I have to do something. It's too much now."

Now she is walking on air, carrying a renewed self-confidence — and a high caliber rifle.

"I can do something great, I can save myself, I can see that no man is going to challenge me again."

braveones2.jpg
A member of the Akashinga squad, or "The Brave Ones" — Zimbabwe's first all-female anti-poaching team. CBS News

The women live for weeks at a time away from their children and families. Chigumbura only gets to see her children every two months.

"We are proud of her. We heard the job is well done," said Chigumbura's mother. But did she ever think her daughter would be in the bush with a gun? "Never," she said, laughing.

The Brave Ones initiative is entirely funded by private donors.

"I think women, given the opportunity, will change the face of conservation forever," said Mander. "I think we have seriously under-estimated one of the most powerful forces in nature."

First published on January 7, 2019

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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