Women carry fight against rhino poaching

The Black Mambas- Images by Jeffrey Barbee/allianceearth.org
Black Mambas set up listening Post on a hill; photo by Jeffrey Barbee/Alliance Earth

A group of unarmed women might not be able to save South Africa’s rhinos from extinction, but they’re definitely making a difference in the fight to save the iconic animals.

The 26 women comprise the Black Mambas, the world’s first all-female anti-poaching unit, which patrols Balule Nature Reserve within vast Kruger National Park.

The Black Mambas- Images by Jeffrey Barbee/allianceearth.org
Collette Ngobeni patrols the reserve fence line; photo by Jeffrey Barbee/Alliance Earth

In large part because of their presence, the private reserve has not lost a rhino to poachers during the past 10 months, while a neighboring reserve lost 23 during the same period.

That’s remarkable, considering that poachers, on average, kill a rhino every seven hours in South Africa, and are driving the population toward extinction. (More than 1,200 rhinos were killed by poachers in South Africa last year alone.)

Rhino horns can fetch $35,000 per pound on the Black market in Asia, and poachers in South Africa hail largely from poor communities surrounding the enormous wilderness parks.

The Black Mambas- Images by Jeffrey Barbee/allianceearth.org
White rhino in Kruger National Park. One is killed every 7 hours in South Africa; photo by Jeffrey Barbee/Alliance Earth

Many local residents have developed a disdain for the wealthy park operators, and they’re protective of their own, making the fight against rhino poaching that much more difficult.

With this in mind, Balule warden Craig Spencer decided that a creative approach was to reach out to those communities. He began to hire young women to form the patrols.

“The problem really is that there is this perception that has developed in the communities outside the park–they see a uniformed official and think we are the sheriff of Nottingham, [and] they see the poachers as Robin Hood,” Spencer told the Guardian.

The Black Mambas- Images by Jeffrey Barbee/allianceearth.org
Leitah Michabela rests after a morning roadblock shift; photo by Jeffrey Barbee/Alliance Earth

The Black Mambas Spencer hired were unemployed high-school graduates. All were trained extensively in combat and tracking. They are a proud force and powerful deterrent.

“Lots of people said, ‘How can you work in the bush when you are a lady?’ But I can do anything I want,” said Leitah Michabela, a veteran Black Mamba guard. “Many other people, especially young ladies like us… they want to join us.”

The Black Mambas are not alone, of course. The 40,000-hectare reserve also utilizes 29 armed guards, and an intelligence team. The Black Mambas’ job is primarily to patrol the reserve’s perimeter, as sort of the first line of defense.

The Black Mambas- Images by Jeffrey Barbee/allianceearth.org
Nocry Qolisile shows off her manicure. The Black Mambas take pride in their appearance, calling themselves bush “ambassadors”; photo by Jeffrey Barbee/Alliance Earth

They man roadblocks and keep vigilant watch, but also set up nighttime listening posts, as human voices carry far in the quiet solitudes of the reserve.

Jeffrey Barbee, whose images accompany this story, spent several days on patrol with the Black Mambas, on assignment for Alliance Earth.

Barbee described the experience, via email, as uplifting, and said the Black Mambas have achieved a life-changing sense of purpose, and refer to themselves as  bush ambassadors.

“Not only have they reduced the poaching that killed dozens of rhinos in the reserve, but they are addressing poverty and inequality, the main drivers of that poaching,” Barbee said. “The women are motivated and extremely proud of what they do. In their own words, something has changed inside them.”

The photojournalist explained that some of the women were initially afraid of spending weeks at a time sleeping in tents in the wilderness, but now most of them relish the wilderness and its remarkable wildlife.

Said Michabela in the Guardian: “I am a lady, I am going to have a baby. I want my baby to see a rhino, that’s why I am protecting it.”

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