The Black Mambas are winning the war on poaching,” insists Siphiwe Sithole. “We have absolutely zero tolerance for rhino poaching and the illegal wildlife trade. The poachers will fall – but it will not be with guns and bullets.”
Sithole and Felicia Mogakane are members of South Africa’s Black Mambas, the world’s first all-female anti-poaching unit that has captured the public’s imagination.
But it’s their success in reducing rhino deaths and breaking down the barriers between poor communities and elite wildlife reserves that is their most powerful weapon in the war on poaching, and has seen them pick up their second international conservation award this week.
The two women have travelled to London to receive the inaugural Innovation in Conservation award from UK charity Helping Rhinos. The award recognises projects “with an inspiring and innovative approach” that have shown positive results in protecting rhino populations.
Since forming in 2013, the Black Mambas have seen a 76% reduction in snaring and poaching incidents within their area of operation in Balule nature reserve in the country’s north-east. As well as the famous big five of rhino, lion, elephant, buffalo and leopard, the 40,000-hectare private reserve is home to zebra, antelope, wildebeest, cheetah, giraffe, hippos, crocodiles and hundreds of species of trees and birds.
In the six months before the Mambas were set up, 16 rhinos were lost in Balule, one of several private reserves bordering Kruger national park. In the 12 months after, fatalities were reduced to just three rhinos.
Thousands of snares to catch animals for bushmeat have been removed, 10 poacher camps destroyed, three bushmeat kitchens put out of action and six poachers arrested. Such is their success that South Africa’s national parks authority is looking at replicating the model, with plans for another team of six female rangers.
Last year the Mambas won the Champions of the Earth prize, the UN’s highest environmental honour, awarded to those showing outstanding courage in fighting the illegal wildlife trade at community level.
“Winning these awards are good because it’s about knowing that people from South Africa love and appreciate what we are doing and they are so happy that there are Mambas,” says Mogakane, 28, who has been with the team from the start. “Unlike some years ago, when they used to say this job is for men, now there are women who are working to protect the wildlife. It means a lot to us and makes us continue to do our job because we know that people are behind us, supporting us.”
The Mambas were founded by Craig Spencer, head warden of Balule, to act as an unarmed but visible frontline presence in the ongoing battle against the poaching of rhino and other endangered species – like the idea of “bobbies on the beat”.
“Craig saw there were men rangers carrying guns but still the rhinos were being killed and lots of animals were being poached,” said 32-year-old Sithole, who has travelled abroad for the first time. “I think he said ‘let me start something and put women on board and see what happen’, because women are more loyal to their jobs, they are passionate about what they do. I think the idea is very good, and it helps reduce the standard of poverty because those women that would be sitting at home will be having something to do.”
The 26 Mambas, all from disadvantaged communities on the border of the park, have been given six weeks of paramilitary training and wildlife education and work alongside 29 armed guards and an intelligence team that seeks to stop the poachers before they can kill.
“When I go to work in the morning, I wonder if I [am] going to come back, because there are poachers in the bush and dangerous animals,” Mogakane says. “But, we are used to it, because we’re trained.”
Day-to-day duties include patrols of up to 20km a day on foot and by vehicle at night, pulling out snares, conducting roadblocks and assisting with tracking collars.
A key area is the western boundary fence, which borders hundreds of thousands of impoverished villages and is a potential way into the protected parks network for poachers.
Mogakane says: “Firstly, poaching was for bushmeat. People say ‘we don’t have jobs so we must go inside the reserve and poach some impala so that we can sell it and get some money to buy groceries for our family’. In most cases now, people come in for rhinos, because they want to get rich, drive some fancy cars and build a nice house.”
South Africa has the largest population of rhinos in the world, estimated at 19,000. The country has seen a huge spike in the rate of rhino poaching in recent years, with many of these incidents taking place in protected national parks like Kruger. Last year 1,175 rhinos were poached – the first year that numbers had not risen since the alarming trend began after 2007, when just 13 were killed.
Rhino horn has become so valuable the conservationists warn the species could become extinct in 10 years.
It is considered a status symbol in Vietnam and China, where the growth of the middle class has led to an explosion in demand for the horn, which is ground down and used as a traditional medicinal cure and recreational drug. International criminal syndicates are known to charge £60,000 a kilo for an illegal substance that is worth more than gold but is no different from human fingernails.
Money is driving much of the poaching, the Mambas say. A night in a luxury suite in one of the local game reserves – seen as the preserve of rich tourists – can cost at least £250. In many cases, people living in the surrounding villages don’t have access to these reserves – or their profits. With more than 85% of the local population unemployed, some see it as more valuable to hunt the rhino rather than preserve it.
Sithole said: “Some of the people who are doing these things went to school with us … you come to ask yourself why are they doing this? Why has this person turned his mind to become a killer? To destroy our nature? It feels very sad and what they are doing is very wrong.”
It is hoped the Mambas can bridge this gap by showing that local black people from disadvantaged communities can get jobs and education in the reserves too. Being role models for “social upliftment”, and educating the local community is how the war on poaching will be won – not with guns and bullets, they say.
Mogakane supports 10 family members with her salary, which enables her to buy groceries and pay for school fees for her two young boys. “If I weren’t doing this, I would be sitting at home without a job because jobs are scarce in South Africa. So this is a big opportunity for me because I am able to take care of my family.”
The Mambas have also started an outreach programme called Bush Babies with 10 local schools. “Before we started it people were not aware,” Sithole says. “But now we teach the kids and they go back home and send the messages to their parents. They might know now that if they continue to do this we might end up without any rhino.”
This article was first published by The Guardian on 26 Feb 2016.