The black mamba is the most venomous snake in sub-Saharan Africa. One bite can kill a person in just a few hours. It is also the namesake of the all-female anti-poaching unit that operates in the 56,000-acre private Balule Nature Reserve at Kruger National Park in South Africa.
The name choice represents “the strength of the mambas, and their quick reactions,” said Valeria van der Westhuizen, communications manager for the Mambas. “Strength of the woman in South Africa, strength of the Mamba.”
The Black Mambas were founded in 2013 and comprise of 14 women largely from the Phalaborwa community that resides near the park. Prior to the group’s formation, poaching for rhino horn and bushmeat in the reserve was rampant, with poachers—many who came from the local communities—fetching up to US$26,000 for one horn. Leitah Mkhabela, the supervisor Mamba, said that a reason for the nearby communities’ involvement was that they didn’t feel the wildlife belonged to them, as most had never had a chance to even see the animals. Poaching was a way to make a lot of money, quickly.
This is why one of the Mambas’ mandates is to educate on the importance of conservation as well as gather information from locals about poachers.
“The community needs to benefit from the reserves that are near,” said Mkhabela, highlighting a wider ongoing discussion across Africa on protected areas. “If the game reserves can benefit the local communities by providing freshwater sources or giving bursaries for higher education, we are going to see a decrease in rhino and bushmeat poaching.”
Through the Bush Babies Environmental Education Program, the Mambas take members, especially children, from the communities to the reserve to see the wild animals. “There are some people who live just 10 km from the reserve, but have never seen a rhino, lion or elephant in their life,” said Mkhabela.
Aside from educating the local communities, the Black Mambas track 126 km of the park’s border every day, looking for snare traps, inspecting the electric border fence and searching cars. Their work has reduced poaching in the reserve by 75 per cent.
“In 2013 when this project started, we used to come back from sweeps with 80 fresh snares,” said Mkhabela. “Today if we sweep the whole area we might come back with just five, some of which are old.”
Cecilia Njenga, head of UN Environment Programme South Africa said that the Black Mambas highlighted the importance and effectiveness of local knowledge and commitment, crucial to combatting the illegal wildlife trade.
“The Black Mambas are an inspiration not only locally, but across the world to all those working to eliminate the scourge of the illegal wildlife trade,” said Njenga. “We recognize the rapid and impressive impact they have made, and the courage required to accomplish it.”
Photo by Julia Gunther
While the rewards of protecting wild animals is unparalleled, Mkhabela says the job isn’t for everyone. With salaries being minimal, at roughly US$224 per month, living conditions rough, and the dangers from poachers always present, it takes guts to be a ranger.
“I have to put my life at risk every day, making sure that South Africa’s iconic wildlife is safe,” said Mkhabela.
For example, in 2017, Mkhabela and two other Mambas were staging an ambush in Balule when three poachers, whom they were pursuing, spotted them due to a full moon that evening. The women—who patrol unarmed—were lucky enough to escape unscathed after finding a blown-out section of the park’s electric fence, which an elephant had brought down earlier that day.
But for Mkhabela the risks are worth it. She says that being women and mothers, the Mambas understand what it means to care and protect.
“We need to speak for the animals because if we don't speak for them, nobody will speak for them. We have to fight for them, because if we don't fight for them, there's nobody that will fight for them. We know what love is,” she said.
Photo by Kate Thompson-Gorry
In 2015, the Black Mambas were bestowed with UN Environment’s Champion of the Earth lifetime achievement award. Since winning, Mkhabela says that the anti-poaching unit has received even more admiration from the communities than previously, and this has given the Mambas confidence in the value of what they are doing.
Mkhabela says that there are another 10 women currently in training to become Mambas and she hopes the project will grow further and receive more funding.
“I'd like to see many more girls from the community getting jobs as rangers,” she said. “We need the Black Mambas project to continue. We cannot let the poachers win.”
World Ranger Day, an initiative of the International Ranger Federation, is on 31 July to celebrate the work rangers do to protect the planet’s biodiversity and commemorate those killed in the line of duty.