he black metal of the AR-15 rifle has worn silvery and shiny in parts after years of use. More manageable than an AK-47 in close-quarter combat, the weapon is precise enough to bring down an enemy target at 500 metres. Used for decades by anti-poaching units throughout\u00a0Africa, today this gun is not carried by a typical swaggering male field ranger; this one is cradled securely and proficiently by Vimbai Kumire. \u201cThis job is not meant just for men,\u201d she says, \u201cbut for everyone who is fit and strong.\u201d\r\nKumire is a 32-year-old single mother whose husband ran off with a younger woman while she was pregnant with her second child. She is practising setting up an ambush in the early morning in Zimbabwe\u2019s lower Zambezi Valley, nestling deep into the green undergrowth like a dappled shadow.\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\nAll female anti-poaching combat unit - in pictures\r\n\r\n\u00a0\r\n\r\n\r\nThis is Africa\u2019s poaching frontline, and these are not just regular female game rangers. If the team behind Kumire\u2019s new job have anything to do with it, these women are a growing squad of environmental shock troops for a new type of community development offensive.\r\nAccording to conservation biologist Victor Muposhi of Chinhoyi University of Technology, the lower Zambezi Valley has lost 11,000 elephants in the past 10 years. But he believes that hiring and training female rangers such as Kumire directly from the local communities is a game-changer.\r\n\u201cDeveloping conservation skills in communities creates more than just jobs,\u201d says Professor Muposhi. \u201cIt makes local people directly benefit from the preservation of wildlife.\u201d And that, he says, can save not only landmark species such as elephants but entire ecosystems.\r\n\u00a0Women\u2019s empowerment is at the core of the programme, named\u00a0Akashinga, which means the brave ones. \u201cThis is a true empowerment programme,\u201d says Muposhi, \u201cbecause you are dealing with a highly vulnerable and damaged group of young ladies.\u201d Sitting on a rock looking north over one of Africa\u2019s last great wildernesses, Muposhi explains that his early research shows the five-month-old programme is helping change these formerly unemployed single mothers into community leaders.\r\nPrimrose Mazliru, 21, stands in the gathering dusk near their camp among the new grass, bright green with the recent rains. Ramrod straight, shoulders back and proud, she smiles despite the vivid scar that runs across her upper lip, where her ex-boyfriend beat her in a drunken rage. \u201cI can testify to the power of this programme to change my life, and now I have the respect of my community, even as a young single mother,\u201d she explains.\r\nMazliru has already bought a small plot of land with her wages as a field ranger. \u201cI don\u2019t need a man in my life to pay my way for me and my child,\u201d she says, a glint in her eye.\r\nLike most countries in southern Africa, Zimbabwe uses game management areas around famous national parks such as Victoria Falls or Mana Pools as \u201cbuffer zones\u201d to protect the animals. These buffer zones are huge tracts of land much larger than the parks themselves, originally created to benefit the surrounding communities by allowing limited trophy hunting by high-dollar foreign clients such as\u00a0Walter Palmer, the American dentist who attracted worldwide condemnation after killing Cecil the lion on a hunt in 2015.There are no fences between the hunting areas, or between the wildlife and the estimated 4 million people living on the borders of these protected lands. Some profits from the hunting have gone to support the communities which live in the wilderness areas designated for trophy hunting \u2013 almost 20% of Zimbabwe\u2019s land.\r\nAccording to Muposhi, these precious ecosystems are now under grave threat due to the collapse of commercial hunting, in part because of a growing ethical backlash. \u201cCecil the lion marked the birth of the greater debate around the issues of morals and ethics in hunting and whether it is sustainable or not.\u201d\r\nRevenues are plummeting and human populations around parks growing. \u201cFive years from now,\u201d says Muposhi, \u201cif we do not have other options, then it will not be viable to save these areas.\u201d\r\nDamien Mander, the founder of the\u00a0Akashinga\u00a0initiative, is a tall, Australian, military-trained sniper, who would look very much at home in the centre of a rugby scrum. Mander was inspired by the story of the Black Mambas, the world\u2019s first female, unarmed anti-poaching unit, who work near South Africa\u2019s Kruger National Park. Having met some of the women on a fundraising trip to New York, where they were giving a talk, he saw the international support and interest they received and thought a similar project in Zimbabwe might be a good way to raise the profile of his own project,\u00a0the International Anti-Poaching Foundation\u00a0(IAPF). What transpired went way beyond those modest ambitions.\r\n\u201cThirty-six women started our training, modelled on our special-forces training, and we pushed them hard, much harder than any training we do with men,\u201d he explains from his tented camp at a secret location in the Zambezi Valley. \u201cOnly three dropped out. I couldn\u2019t believe it.\u201dFrom the very first day of the women\u2019s training, he saw that something very special was happening. He realised that women were the missing link to successful conservation and anti-poaching initiatives. \u201cWe have turned a security need into a community programme,\u201d he said. In only five months, according to Mander, this pilot project is already putting more money per month into the local community than trophy hunting did per year.\r\nImportant people are noticing. Tariro Mnangagwa is a 32-year-old professional photographer who is visiting and training with the International Anti-Poaching Foundation\u2019s\u00a0Akashinga field ranger unit. She is also the youngest daughter of Zimbabwe\u2019s new president, Emmerson Mnangagwa.\r\n\u201cThese women show me hope,\u201d she says. She heads to a beaten-up Land Rover to visit a community in search of a former poacher who wants to talk.\r\nAnnette H\u00fcbschle, a senior researcher and post-doctoral fellow at the University of Cape Town, believes that the\u00a0Akashinga\u00a0model could still be a great solution. While many western governments and conservation organisations take decisions in London, New York and Geneva, the people most affected are usually women in communities adjacent to protected areas in Africa. Community-driven conservation programmes based around empowerment and training for women such as Kumire and Mazliru offer a potential solution to the end of hunting.\r\nMander, and all his rangers, live on a vegan diet. His TED talk on veganism has been seen by millions of people around the world. He stopped eating animal products five years ago. \u201cI was wandering around in the bush, protecting one group of animals and coming home and eating another. I could not live with the hypocrisy of that any more.\u201d\r\nThe\u00a0Akashinga\u00a0have embraced it with gusto. \u201cIt\u2019s great,\u201d says Kumire with a huge smile, as she stands in the light of the cooking fire steaming with pots of beans and spinach-like greens. \u201cI don\u2019t miss meat at all, when I go home for leave and people try to feed me meat I can\u2019t eat it because my stomach hurts if I do, and I tell people no, don\u2019t give me meat, I am vegan!\u201d The women around her smile and nod in agreement.\r\nMuposhi, himself a vegan for 13 years, argues that showing communities they don\u2019t need bushmeat is about setting an example, one that stops poaching and reduces the need to farm animals in wilderness areas \u2013 a driver of habitat loss. Muposhi is excited to see the project grow. \u201cIt is happening right in the middle of nowhere in the Zambezi Valley, and it is part of a greater movement,\u201d he says. \u201cWe are going to develop it to become one of the best models of conservation of wildlife based on women\u2019s empowerment.\u201d\r\nAs the training exercise unfolds, the female rangers are hidden from sight, the muzzles of their AR-15s poking from tufts of grass. Slowly the two scouts designated as \u201cpoachers\u201d walk down the animal track. When they get to the right spot the women explode into action, shouting \u201cGet down! Down! Now, now, now!\u201d Within moments they have the suspects handcuffed. When asked why the pretend \u201cpoachers\u201d are shaking, Kumire says that suspects always lay \u201cshaking on the ground\u201d, she laughs. Mander ends the exercise, the women help their friends up with smiles, and together they quietly fall into formation and disappear back into the bush.