In South Africa’s Balule Nature Reserve, poaching and illegal wildlife trade has a new enemy: a group of tough, tenacious women. Known as the Black Mamba Anti Poaching Unit, these women challenge their everyday harsh circumstances and come together to protect and preserve the endangered species living in the area. Since the unit’s inception in 2013 they have arrested six poachers, shut down five poacher camps, and reduced snaring (the practice of baiting and trapping animals) by 76% in the reserve. According to the United Nations, not a single rhino has been poached in the area in the past ten months, which is revolutionary, considering how often rhinos are poached and hunted in the other reserves in the area. A first of its kind, the team initially consisted of 26 Black Mambas, but have now expanded to include an additional 23 armed guards that operate within Balule and its boundaries, covering an area upto 400 square kilometres.
Anti-poaching is a major concern within the area, as it is constantly plagued by rhino and bush-meat poachers. In South Africa, the phrase “the Big Five” is often a reference to lions, leopards, rhinos, buffalo and elephants, the most coveted wildlife in the region. Protection of these species traditionally falls within the domain of men; as, in the South African patriarchal society, men are seen as more ‘physically capable’ to provide this kind of protection. But, the Black Mambas have been challenging these traditional gender roles, and have emerged as a rare instance where a position of such power and importance is taken on by women. Black Mamba members have to go through a rigorous six-week training program before commencing work on the reserve, as the job can be a dangerous one, due to the threat of violence from poachers. Being in regular proximity and engagement with wildlife can also prove a precarious task, and hence the Black Mambas work in a constantly challenging environment. Yet, each of the Mambas are passionate and dedicated to their task.
Leitah Michabela, a Black Mamba ranger, told the UN: “I am not afraid, I know what I am doing and I know why I am doing it. If you see the poachers you tell them not to try, tell them we are here and it is they who are in danger.”
Many of these women are the sole breadwinners of their families and have to provide domestic support with their meagre wages. But, what connects all of them together and fosters their work ethos is their mutual love for nature and conservation. Protecting wildlife is not just a profession to them, but a personal responsibility. Colette Ngobeni, another Black Mamba patroller, said, “If we work together as a community we can work this out. People need to open their minds, their hearts. It’s not about money, it’s about our culture, our future.”
These women are the real heroes. Challenging harsh physical conditions and patriarchal norms, they are contributing significantly to the community. They are not only protecting nature and wildlife, but proving that with skill, perseverance and determination, anything can be achieved. These women are both the nurturers and the defenders, and hence exhibiting both traditionally feminine and masculine roles in society. Their continued success has become a milestone in female empowerment, and they have emerged as role models not just in South Africa, but for young girls all over the world. By breaking out of the domesticization which women are forced into in a patriarchal society and venturing out to pursue a profession which requires both intense physical and intellectual labour, they are changing the way women are traditionally perceived. Their work has also opened up a lot of professional avenues for women rangers, as the employment opportunities for women in wildlife preservation are on the increase.
Recently, their efforts have been recognized by the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP), which awarded them its highest environmental prize — the Champions of the Earth Award. UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner stated in a press release, “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.“