‘It happened last November. It was an early, cloudy morning and I was sweeping the reserve together with another ranger. We didn’t know poachers had entered the evening before.” Sitting on a wooden chair in an abandoned hangar serving as a training ground for the new female recruits, Belinda Mzimba still remembers the day she made her first arrest.
That fateful morning this 22-year-old ranger was on patrol with another Black Mamba, the unarmed, all-female squad employed since 2013 along the 400 square kilometres of the Balule Nature Reserve, in South Africa’s iconic Kruger National Park.
“Suddenly, I detected a strong odour of cigarettes and firewood. Poachers were there,” continues Mzimba. Following the smell, the rangers were able to reach a clearing where two men, aged 21 and 57, were about to prepare some food. “The elder one grabbed a machete and ran towards me,” she recalls. Mzimba managed to pepper-spray him just in time. “When he got to the ground, we were able to restrain and handcuff him,” she laughs it off, her eyes full of pride.
The men Mzimba arrested were among the 6,000 poachers active within the Kruger Park, where local bushmeat hunters operate together with much more dangerous big-game syndicates targeting rhinos. The brainchild of Balule’s head warden Craig Spencer, the Black Mambas have been on the frontline pitted against South Africa’s most dreaded wildlife killers since 2013, focusing on deterrence, prevention and education.
Working as an early detection team, the Mambas patrol the fence on the western edge of the Kruger day and night, looking for any breach or track left by poachers, as well as conducting periodical bush sweeps in search of wire snares.
“At the beginning it was very hard. We were only six and we had to patrol the whole of Balule,” says Nocry Mzimba, 22, the first Mamba ever to be recruited. “But there was no choice. We had to make an effort because those animals needed our protection.”
Three years into the initiative, the achievements have been remarkable: the Black Mambas have grown into a team of 26 rangers and reduced poaching activities within Balule by 76 per cent, destroying more than 12 poachers’ camps and three “kitchens” where captured animals were processed for bushmeat.
“When we first started, the girls would come back from bush sweeps with 20 or 30 snares at a time. Now they hardly find one,” William Hodgson, the Mambas’ manager, says. “They are our visual policing team. If something happens they will pick it up, assess the situation and call the armed guards, who will then take over.” The success of the programme is even more remarkable considering that, apart from the rangers’ wages, the initiative relies on donations.
The Mambas’ visual deterrence has proved invaluable in driving poachers away from Balule, but if they are a well-oiled machine today much of the credit goes to the first batch of rangers who opened the path for the others.
“Our training was extremely hard. We had to spend 16 days in the bush, building our huts out of the wood we found in the forest. We were not allowed to bathe or to remove our boots,” remembers 33-year-old Siphiwe Sithole, a tall, athletic ranger who was among the first to join. Fondly called “Sergeant” by her comrades, she is among the most committed rangers. “You need patience and courage to do this job. If you come just for the money and your heart is not there, you are not going to protect our rhinos,” she says.
Highly-prized in Asian traditional medicine and fetching up to US $60,000 (Dh220,337) per kilogram, in the past 10 years rhino horns have fuelled a global poaching emergency. Home to more than 80 per cent of the world’s rhino population, last year South Africa lost 1,175 of them, a skyrocketing increase compared with the 13 killed in 2007. All the world’s five remaining rhino species are nowadays classified as endangered, with three on the brink of extinction. Given the local authorities’ fruitless efforts to stem the illegal traffic, Spencer came up with a revolutionary idea: beat poachers on their own terrain.
All in their 20s or early 30s, the Mambas are specifically recruited from the poor communities nearby, where poachers come from. This allows them not only to gather precious intelligence, but also to try shifting their people’s perceptions towards nature conservation, as many of them are young mothers with a strong infuence on the future generations. “Poaching has to be tackled through education and mentality change. This is not a battle we can win with bullets,” Hodgson says.
The relationship between nature reserves and the destitute villages around them has long been a difficult one. Since the former can employ only a limited number of people, most of the communities struggle to understand what the benefits are.
While lodges within the Kruger cost hundreds of dollars per night, in the adjacent villages the unemployment rate reaches 47 per cent, with 78.9 per cent of the population living below the national poverty line. That striking disparity drives poachers to risk their lives to bring some money home.
In the past five years, 500 poachers from neighbouring Mozambique have been killed in the Kruger. Hodgson believes this policy has only made matters worse by eliminating hundreds of breadwinners and plunging their families into destitution, further embittering them towards the nature reserves.
“No one has learnt from these mistakes,” Hodgson says. “What is so great about the Black Mambas programme is that it is about trying to find different techniques and new ways to combat poaching without killing people.”
Conscious that the battle will be ultimately won or lost in the younger generations, the Black Mambas have embarked on an educational programme involving 820 local pupils, headed by Lewyn Maefala. Once a week, this flamboyant and energetic Mamba from Pretoria tours 10 schools within the most disadvantaged communities in the area to teach children how important environmental conservation is for their future.
“We teach them about the relationship between species and the importance of keeping our soil and water clean. We organise excursions and cleaning campaigns,” the 23-year-old explains. “Our message is, if we are not gonna care about our animals, this will all disappear and then it will be too late.”
The following morning, when the sunrise lights up the reserve and giraffes and wildebeests come around to graze, a group of new Mamba recruits start their drills on a nearby disused airstrip, learning everything from communication codes to arrest techniques.
Coming from a traditional society where it is unusual for women to stand up to men, some are shy and uncomfortable, but the Mambas in charge of the training are confident the recruits’ confidence will grow and, after two months of intensive training, they will eventually be ready.
“When someone says this is not a job for women, to me it’s just nonsense,” Sithole says, laughing. “There is nothing meant for men. God has given us the capability to think and use our body as well. If we train hard, we can do the job.”
At the beginning, most of the Mambas encountered the same problems and faced heavy scepticism from their families, who feared they might be killed, either by poachers or wild animals. “When I joined my mother was extremely scared. Now, both my parents are so proud of what I do,” says Joy Mathebula, 22, a Mamba since 2014.
At sundown, sweating and tired, the recruits return to the hangar to prepare themselves a meagre meal. In a few weeks’ time, when the training is over, they will be moved to the basic, wooden sheds where Mambas live when on duty. By spending so much time inside the reserve in close contact with one another they are already forging strong friendships, an important step in order to become part of a successful team. Almost a motherly figure, Sithole watches from afar, recognising in some of the young women the same spirit that compelled her to join years ago.
“We are women and mothers, we know how to nurture things,” she says proudly. “When I am here, it’s like being pregnant with nature.” Then, as she observes the girls marching back to their common room, Sithole’s gaze suddenly hardens and her combat training takes over: “We need to keep expanding the programme. Poachers must know they don’t stand a chance in each and every reserve that’s got the Mambas.”
Black Mambas is funded by donations to the website at www.blackmambas.org.
Matteo Fagotto is a freelance journalist who focuses on social and human rights issues. He is the co-founder of Tandem Reportages and his work has been published in Time, Newsweek, The Guardian, Die Zeit, the Toronto Star and Wired.