Big game, high stakes: on patrol with an all-women anti-poaching unit

Poaching in South Africa threatens the lives of thousands of vulnerable animals and tears communities apart. Can the Black Mambas, the world’s first all-female anti-poaching unit, change the rules of the game?

“It’s difficult being a woman in the bush,” says 23-year-old Leitah Mkhebela. “It’s hard chasing armed poachers when we are unarmed. But animals can’t fight for themselves so we fight for them.”

Mkhebela is one of the 36-strong Black Mambas team. These young South African women stand on the frontline of a fierce battle against poaching in Balule Nature Reserve, a 154sq m wilderness bordering Kruger National Park.

Kedibone Malatji is one of the 36 Black Mambas

The area is famed for its natural beauty and abundant wildlife. Overlooked by the blue-tinged tips of the Drakensberg Mountains, tourists flock to private nature reserves, paying top dollar for luxury safari experiences. But for local communities, it’s a different world. Almost 80 per cent of people living nearby are under the age of 35, and more than half are unemployed. Less than one per cent will have the chance of a university education.

Kruger is one of the largest poaching targets in southern Africa, a trade fuelled by a vast network of demand from countries such as China and Vietnam. According to South Africa’s Department of Environmental Affairs, 1,175 rhino were killed in 2015 alone. Experts, including those from the Zoological Society of London, predict the species will be extinct within 10 years if poaching continues at current levels.

I meet people all over the world fighting for the same things we are fighting for

Craig Spencer, head warden of Balule, also heads up conservation charity Transfrontier Africa and has spent years dealing with this heartbreaking battle. “We’re never going to police the problem away – it will never be that simple,” he says. “Poachers act the way they do partly through poverty, and partly because of an ‘us and them’ mentality between wealthy reserves and communities. So we need education and we need community involvement. Strong, empowered women are the best way to go about it.”

Women bring unique skills to the field in the fight against poaching

In 2013, Spencer and Transfrontier Africa started the Black Mambas, initially training six unemployed young women, kitting them out in donated secondhand military uniforms, and sending them out into the bush. In doing, so they changed the women’s lives, as well as some deeply ingrained attitudes.

“When I joined, it was hard for friends and family to understand. They thought, you can’t do it, only men can do it,” says Mkhebela. “But we have proved them wrong. Older ladies say to me: ‘I wish we had been given the chance to do what you are doing when we were young’.”

The women take a break

The fight against poaching is dirty, hard and dangerous, and the women must be prepared for all eventualities. They undergo rigorous training: 12 days and nights roughing it in the bush, learning how to avoid lions, cheetahs and angry male elephants, as well as recognising ‘spoor’, the tracks or scents of animal and human predators.

They thought, you can’t do it, only men can do it. But we have proved them wrong

The women act as the park’s eyes and ears, walking distances of up to 13 miles a day in the 35-degree heat to check for signs of intruders, injured animals or illegal activity. They uncover jagged metal snares set by hunters; wire holes in fences, snipped ready for a night time raid; animals maimed and killed. Their armed backup unit is never far away.

Night patrols see the women jumping into an old jeep, so ramshackle the door opens every time it rounds a bend, crisscrossing the beams of their torches through the darkness. They are searching for signs of intruders, but also sending out a signal visible for miles around: we are here, and we are looking for you.

The Black Mambas patrol under the cover of darkness, too

“One night we were on patrol and I heard voices,” says Mkhebela. “We knew they were poachers. We immediately chased them, they ran, and when they looked back, we could see they were scared. I wanted to arrest them. But we lost our backup team in the scramble. We were in the middle of nowhere, alone with these men. They had guns and big knives to cut the meat. I started to be scared. I have a baby. I thought, what if they come back to kill me?”

The Mambas escaped unharmed that time, but the stakes are high on both sides. Many of the poachers come from the same communities as the women. “Lots of people have suffered,” says Mkhebela. “Lots of people have died, lots of women have lost their husbands. And to no benefit. It creates nothing but hate.”

This is my calling. Whatever it takes, I have to protect these animals

Many local men are of the opinion that policing the park is about carrying guns and being aggressive, but this attitude can actually lead to more violence. Spencer finds the women more likely to take their time in spotting the vital clues that poaching is taking place.

When they’re not working, the women spend time in the community teaching youngsters about conservation. And while men have a chance at being employed as guides on the reserve, women do not have the same opportunity. The Black Mambas challenge several stereotypes at once, head on.

Training is rigorous and includes learning how to avoid lions and cheetahs

There is some good news. China recently bowed to international pressure and announced that it would close its ivory markets by the end of 2017 – a move that could potentially save hundreds of thousands of elephants across Africa.

Meanwhile, on the ground, the Mambas have in the past year removed 231 snares, tracked down and destroyed three poachers’ camps and bush kitchens, stopped 14 attempted poaching raids and arrested six poachers, as well as carrying out more than 20 operations that led to the rescue, treatment or recovery of four elephants, five rhino, 16 buffalo, one cheetah, eight lions and numerous antelope. In 2015, their work was internationally recognised when they won the UN Champions of the Earth award.

Balule Nature Reserve is known for its wildlife

In April, Mkhebela and colleagues will address hundreds of people at a conservation dinner in New York. It’s a remarkable achievement for any 23-year- old, let alone one from one of the poorest parts of South Africa. “I was just a village girl before,” she says. “Now I meet people all over the world fighting for the same things we are fighting for. This is my calling. Whatever it takes, I have to protect these animals.”

Photography: Maurizio Martorana

This feature is from issue 89 of Positive News magazine

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