Author’s Note: This fictional story was inspired by the very real women of The Akashinga. These female warriors protect the animals of Zimbabwe from poachers. Akashinga translates to “Brave Ones.” I have the deepest respect for these women and what they do.
“If you so much as move a finger, I will kill you,” Tonderayi hissed.
The man holding the gun froze. He thought this was his big payday; that killing the black rhino and sawing off its horn to be sold to the highest bidder would make him rich. He hadn’t heard the girl sneak up on him, nor did he know if her threat was real. The poacher began to turn to face the voice that threatened him.
As he turned, Tonderayi stuck the tip of her freshly sharpened knife into the man’s side, making sure to break the skin, but not puncture anything vital. The poacher yelped and put his hands up in the air.
Tonderayi unsnapped the laniered that was slung across the poacher's shoulder, his hunting rifle clattered to the ground. She brought the man’s arms down behind his back, and used her zip ties to secure his wrists. Tonderayi walked around to face the poacher.
His eyes opened wide. “You’re just a girl,” he spat.
Tonderayi chuckled. “A girl who took your weapon. A girl that stopped you from killing an innocent animal. A girl who is going to hand you over to the auth…” Before she could finish, the poacher lunged at her. He was twice her size, and had a crazed look in his eyes. Tonderayi had seen that look before, one of a man who wouldn’t give up his power, especially to a girl.
Tonderayi side stepped, bringing her knee up into the poachers stomach. She felt her leg push into the man’s diaphragm, expelling the breath from his body. The poacher toppled over gasping for air. Tonderayi placed her foot on the man’s chest. “I am not afraid of you, and I will not let you harm the animals of this land ever again.” She pushed off the man with her foot and kicked hard, hitting the poacher in the side of the head, knocking him out.
The black rhino who the poacher had targeted continued to munch on the dried grass, indifferent to the commotion around him. “What are you looking at Chipembere?” Tonderayi asked.
The rhino just continued to stare, its jaw moving back and forth, grinding up the grass.
“I can’t keep saving you like this every time you feel like wandering off the preservation for a snack Chip! We have dried grass in the preserve, so I don’t understand why you can’t keep your big butt where it's a little safer!”
Chip whipped his tail back and forth, snorted, and trotted up to Tonderayi. They had grown up together on the preserve. They actually had been born only a couple days apart, during the scorching Zimbabwe summer. Tonderayi’s mother was part of the Akashinga warriors who protected the preserve. And like her mother, Tonderayi grew up learning the ways of the Akashinga. She was instilled with a deep respect for all of the plants and animals on the preserve, and an unfathomable hatred for the men who came into it trying to rob Mother Nature of her children.
Chip had been born to an older black rhino named Amai. Chip and Tonderayi both lost their mothers to poachers on a single tragic day. The poachers had shot Amai, and when Tonderayi’s mother reached the scene of the murder, she was executed for trying to stop the men from desecrating the body by taking Amai’s horn.
Even before that tragic day Tonderayi and Chip had a special bond, but after they mourned together the bond became unbreakable. It was a long and painful recovery process. Tonderayi forever kept both mothers in her heart, and vowed to protect all of the animals of the preserve as an Akashinga warrior.
Chip was always happy to see Tonderayi. He would walk up to her and blow snot all over her hand when she rubbed his snout. Chip seemed to laugh when he did this, and would walk away with a little swing in his step. Tonderayi found it less funny, and more disgusting, but that was the relationship she had with the rhino.
“Well, are you going to help me carry this sack of zebra dung back to the outpost, or am I going to have to do it all by myself?” Tonderayi asked, scratching the side of Chip’s face.
Chip snorted, turned around, and trotted back towards the preserve pretending not to hear Tonderayi’s question.
“That’s what I figured,” Tonderayi said shaking her head. She bent over, grabbed the poacher by the pants, and put one leg under each arm. She started the long walk back to her mud caked jeep that was parked at the edge of the preserve. “You’re a pain in the ass!” she yelled after Chip, who was now far ahead, his shadow stretching out in the gentle light of the setting sun.
Tonderayi brought the poacher to the outpost and transferred him to a holding cell. government police came every few days to check in with the protectors of the preserve, and to transport any poachers into the main city for processing. It was a symbiotic relationship between the Akashinga tribe and the government. The Akashinga collected the garbage and the government took it out of the preserve.
Days went by without incident. Tonderayi made her rounds each morning checking in at the different watering holes and alway making sure to keep an eye out for signs of poachers. Since the Akashinga had taken over the role of protectors of the preserve, poaching had decreased drastically. The all female warriors were skilled in tracking and talking down confrontation. When talking didn’t work, they were more than happy to use their combat skills.
It was Thursday, which was when Gamba would come to check if any poachers needed to be taken back to the city for processing.
“Anything for me to bring in?” Gamba asked Tonderayi who was sitting outside of the guardhouse in her Jeep.
“Nothing since the poacher I caught when Chip left the preserve,” she responded. “You didn’t happened to have seen Chip on your way in did you?”
“No I haven’t see him today, but you know how he gets, he’s probably off harassing the monkeys.”
“Yeah, you’re probably right.” Tonderayi shifted in her seat and sighed. I just haven’t seen him all day, and he always comes to the gatehouse in the afternoon for his snack of berries.”
“Well, this is my last stop for the day, why don’t we take a ride through the preserve and see if we can’t track him down.”
“Yeah, I’d like that,” Tonderayi said with a smile. She admired Gamba’s willingness to always help. “You’re one of the good ones Gamba,” she said with a wink.
Gamba blushed slightly as he turned away to grab binoculars from his truck. He walked over to Tondrayi’s jeep and slid in through the doorless opening. “Hit it,” he said.
Tonderayi shifted the Jeep into first gear and sped down the dirt road, kicking up clouds of dust behind them. They had driven down several of the main paths to watering holes that Chip frequented, but there was no sign of the black rhino. The sun sat low on the horizon, causing the sky to turn blood orange. They came to a trail near the edge of the preserve.
“Stop!” shouted Gamba.
Tonderayi slammed on the breaks.
“Look over there.” Gamba pointed down one of the sidepaths. There were fresh rhino tracks in the dirt.
“Oh god,” Tonderayi whispered, putting her hand over her mouth. Mixed in with rhino tracks were the imprints of combat boots. They were fresh, and Tonderayi knew she was the only Akashinga to pass through this part of the preserve today.
The Jeep cruised to a stop as the engine wound down. Tonderayi and Gamba jumped out of the vehicle and inspected the tracks more closely. “It looks like Chip’s prints, but I don’t recognize the boots. It may be a…”
Before Tonderayi could finish the crack of a gunshot echoed through the trees, causing the birds that were nestled in them to take flight. “No! Come on!” Tonderayi yelled. She sprinted down the path, Gamba followed right behind her.
They exited the treeline, eyes wide with horror. Lying in a clearing was Chip. He was on his side, his stomach heaving up and down. His eyes looked up at the man standing above him, unable to comprehend why this human had hurt him.
The man pulled his hunting rifle up to the crook of his shoulder and took aim at Chip’s temple. The rhino’s eyes closed.
The gun went off, but not because the hunter willingly pulled the trigger, instead the sudden impact of Tonderayi’s body running into him had caused the weapon to go off. She had moved like a bolt of lightning, closing the gap between her and the hunter as he peered down the sight of his rifle. As she collided with the poacher, Tonderayi forced the gun’s muzzle up into the air. When the weapon went off, the bullet flew harmlessly into the fiery sky.
The poacher and Tonderayi’s bodies tumbled to the ground and rolled to a stop, a dust cloud settled around them. Tonderayi scrambled to her feet, looking for the poacher’s gun, but it was still slung against the man’s body. He lay on the ground aiming the rifle at Tonderayi’s chest. Without hesitation Tonderayi lunged to the side. The gun went off, she could feel the bullet graze her shoulder. Searing pain shot down her arm.
Tonderayi recovered from the dive, somersaulting back into a standing position. Before the poacher could bring his gun around to aim at her again, she dove on top of him. Tonderayi grabbed the still hot muzzle of the gun with both hands, and forced it back towards the poacher’s face. The metal of the gun connected hard with the bridge of the man’s nose. He blinked hard before Tonderayi brought the gun forward, then back into his nose, knocking him out.
Tonderayi breathed heavily over the unconscious poacher. Her heart beat like a Tonga drum. Her head shot up. “Chip!” she yelled. Tonderayi spun around and ran toward the black rhino. Kneeling beside him was Gamba, his hands covering the bullet wound in the rhino’s side.
“He’s bleeding, but I think I’ve slowed it down. We need to get the doctors here quickly.”
Tonderayi felt a tear roll down her cheek. She took a deep breath and sprinted back to the Jeep where she radioed for help.
A few weeks passed; the preserve remained peaceful, the trumpeting of elephants and howls of monkey’s breaking through the air each day. Zamba had brought the poacher who shot Chip back to the city where he was put in jail and tried for his crimes.
Zamba and Tonderayi sat on the back of her Jeep just outside of the Akashinga outpost. Zamba took his binoculars away from his eyes. “Here he comes,” Zamba chuckled.
Tonderayi smiled as Chip lumbered up the path towards them. He still had a slight limp from the surgery to remove the bullet and repair muscle damage, but he was expected to make a full recovery. Chip trotted up to Tonderayi and began nuzzling her leg that hung over the side of the Jeep.
“Alright, alright, calm down you big baby.” Tonderayi reached into her bag and pulled out fresh berries. She cupped some in her hand and lowered it to Chip’s mouth. He sucked the berries up with his lips, and licked the juice off her hand. Chip looked up at Tonderayi and held her gaze for a moment. Then he sneezed, blowing snot all over her arm. Chip snorted, turned around, and sauntered back into the preserve.