Sgt. Vimbai Kumire holds up a photo of a dead leopard on her phone. She stares at the image as the truck she’s riding in bounces over the rutted road. The cat’s neck is slashed and its bloody paws hang slack. “Before this job, I didn’t think about the animals,” she says.
Now Kumire, 33, and her all-female wildlife ranger team, the Akashinga, are among the animals’ fiercest protectors. 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 ecosystem. The greater region has lost thousands of elephants to poachers over the last two decades. 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 the leopard.
At the scene, Kumire wades into an angry crowd. Standing five feet two inches tall, she could easily get lost in the chaos, but she moves calmly and confidently through the emotionally charged group, speaking softly but firmly. Ten injured men slowly come forward. One has a bandage on his cheek, another’s arm is wrapped in blood-stained cotton. Eight others nursing scratches and punctures cluster around her.