An unarmed anti-poaching unit is shaking up South Africa’s war on wildlife crime.
“See that? Over there?” Carol Khosa asks. The sun catches the glint of a plastic water bottle tucked beneath the dried bark of a leadwood tree. To an untrained eye, it’s easy to overlook – an irresponsible tourist might have tossed the bottle while riding through the reserve on a game drive in an open-topped Land Rover. Khosa, a member of the Black Mamba Anti-Poaching Unit, steps forward in her army fatigue uniform and combat boots. She pushes aside a few dead branches, revealing a stack of firewood, a scattering of white animal bones, and the rusted metal frame of a cooking device. “A kitchen,” Khosa says. “An old kitchen.”
Speaking in Zulu, Khosa and her patrol companions, Felicia Mogakane and Colin Mathebula, begin “sweeping” the area for more evidence. Within minutes, the team finds three snares made out of spiraled wire; a filthy comforter; a pair of brown corduroy pants; an old green t-shirt; empty food tins; and a beer bottle. “Poachers,” Khosa says. “Maybe hunting antelope for bush meat. But this camp is old. Very old.”
This is the ninth poachers’ camp that members of Black Mamba Anti-Poaching Unit have discovered since 2013 in and around the Balule Nature Reserve, a 50,000-hectare region of the larger 185,000-hectare Associated Private Game Reserves bordering Kruger National Park. Unfenced, this network of parks and reserves melds with Kruger to provide a two-million-hectare wilderness area for African wildlife.
Prior to 2006, Balule (pronounced “Ba-LOU-lea,” meaning “buffalo” in the local Tsonga language) consisted of private game and cattle farms separated by electrical fences. When wildlife populations began to dwindle on the farms, landowners dropped their fences to become part of the Greater Kruger National Park initiative, allowing animals greater range. Hunting was curtailed, and a group of like-minded farm owners set Balule up as a reserve. Now Balule is a stunning stretch of wooded savannah blanketed with long grasses, small-leafed acacia, and mopane trees. Two-hundred-and-twenty bird species and 30 large mammal species call Balule home, including Africa’s “Big Five” – the lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo, and rhinoceros.
South Africa has the largest population of rhinos in the world, and Balule Nature Reserve holds a substantial number of the country’s threatened white rhinos and critically endangered black rhinos. (The exact numbers remain undisclosed for security reasons.) But rhino poaching in the country has increased dramatically over the past decade, from an estimated 13 rhinos poached in 2007 to 1,215 in 2014. The number fell a bit the following year, but at present, rhino deaths outweigh births, which means rhinos could be wiped out in less than a decade if things don’t change.
Given these numbers, it’s remarkable that very few rhinos have been killed in Balule since the majority-women Black Mamba Anti-Poaching Unit began patrolling in 2013.
The Black Mamba Anti-Poaching Unit is the brainchild of Craig Spencer, a South African conservationist with a wry sense of humor and deep affection for his three-legged German shepherd, Shaya, who helps him track poachers. Spencer is originally from Botswana, but he grew up in Fish Hoek on the western cape of South Africa. After graduating from Cape Town University, he landed his first job in conservation at the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve, working for the local government of the Western Cape and assisting a local anti-poaching unit. After 11 years with the local government conservation department, Spencer decided to refocus his energy on Balule Nature Reserve – he’d fallen love with Balule “because it was the last component to join the Kruger National Park.” He convinced a local landowner to let him park his caravan on his private bush property, and got to work establishing Transfrontier Africa, a nonprofit focused on the ecological management of the Olifants West Region of Balule Nature Reserve.
“The goal was to raise funds for conservation work, and work on projects centered around ecological management,” Spencer says. “Fixing up water holes, taking out the inappropriate ones, improving the carrying capacity of the reserve. Addressing human-wildlife conflicts. Chopping fences, range expansion, [and] the re-introduction of animals.”
In 2012, as rhino poaching was on the rise in South Africa, particularly in Kruger National Park, Balule’s warden asked Transfrontier Africa to help with anti-poaching efforts and wildlife security within the reserve. Spencer initially resisted. “A big part of my previous life had been in the anti-poaching arena in the Western Cape, and I’d tried hard to get away from that because it’s a different mindset,” he says. “It’s a very militaristic approach to dealing with conservation, and you start losing a bit of your humanity.” But when Spencer learned that Balule had lost 19 rhinos to poachers that year, he reconsidered his position.
Most of the Black Mamba crew comprises women doing what has traditionally been a man’s job.
When people think about anti-poaching operations in Africa, they may imagine men in camouflage uniforms racing after poachers in the bush with heavy machine guns. This isn’t too far from the truth, either; another well-known anti-poaching group, the International Anti-Poaching Foundation in Zimbabwe, is famous for being well-armed and embracing militaristic tactics.
Spencer, however, wanted to do things differently. He drew inspiration from an unlikely source more than 8,500 miles away: the British “bobbies on the beat,” unarmed guards who patrol problem areas in UK cities and reduce crime simply by their presence. With this system in mind, Spencer decided to recruit environmental monitors from the local communities around Balule. These environmental monitors would be unarmed, Spencer decided, and patrol mainly on foot, serving as visual deterrents to poachers and as early crime detectors in the reserve. He would recruit women for the jobs. And he’d call the guards “Black Mambas” after the poisonous snake that lives in parts of sub-Saharan Africa.
Spencer’s nontraditional approach stems from his fundamental belief that social problems lie at the heart of the poaching crisis in South Africa. Arm the Black Mamba guards to the teeth, and the poachers will carry heavier weapons into the bush. Shoot a poacher, and animosity builds within that community. “If we keep shooting poachers, we’re going to sit with a community of orphans and widows and dissidents who hate the park,” Spencer says. “We’re trying to close that gap, but every time we shoot one of their husbands or brothers or whoever it might be, we’re just widening that gap even further.”
The Black Mambas seem to agree with Spencer’s ideological approach. “You cannot fight the poaching war [with] guns,” says Felicia Mogakane, a petite 28-year-old. “As Black Mambas, we are the eyes and ears of the reserve. If we had guns, I believe that the poachers would already enter our reserve. Because we are not carrying guns, we are not in the fight. I just want to let people know that it’s wrong [to poach].”
Spencer also believes that employing women in the Black Mamba Unit will improve social welfare in the community. Of the units 36 guards, 33 are women. “In local culture, women look after and feed between four and eight family members, but men who work tend to use money for themselves,” he says. “It was clear it would benefit the community if we hired women rather than men.” True to form, most of the women in the unit send their money home so their families can pay the bills. “This job is good because we can buy groceries,” Mogakane says. “I have 10 people depending on my salary – my siblings, my mom, and my kids.”
While their paychecks help their families buy food, the Black Mambas aren’t making a great deal of money. They earn 3,300 rand per month, or about $238, plus rations. These wages don’t stretch very far. “It’s a small amount,” Mogakane says. “For groceries only.” Nor is the job glamorous. The women live in small dormitory-style huts at the base camp in Balule for three weeks at a time before receiving 10 days of leave to return home.
Besides the poor pay and tough living arrangements, the job is also dangerous – not only do the Black Mambas face the very real possibility of encountering armed poachers, they also risk their lives every time they step into the reserve with free-roaming animals like lions and elephants. Mogakane has experienced this danger first hand. “We were doing our morning patrol, doing a sweep in the bush, and this black rhino started to chase us,” she says. “We had to run.”
Despite these disadvantages, the women and men working in the Black Mamba Anti-Poaching Unit seem grateful to be employed, given that jobs are scarce in this part of South Africa. Mogakane tells me that after high school, she was jobless for three years before she got a position with the Black Mambas. Khosa, too, says that she wasn’t able to get a job until she joined the group.
Black Mamba team members appear to love what they do. When I ask Mogakane, who has two young children at home, why she wanted to be a Black Mamba, her answer is simple: “It’s for the love of the job, and wanting to protect animals. These animals deserve to be protected.” Carol Khosa, who speaks in broken English with a thick accent, is also passionate about the work: “I want to save nature. There are poachers in my area who come into the bush, and I said, I want to protect these animals.”
What’s more, the Black Mambas seem proud of the fact that they’re women doing what has traditionally been a man’s job. “Everyone was just saying, They’re crazy; they can’t do that, because this job is for men,” Mogakane says. “But we have proved them wrong. Because we’re doing it, and we’re women.”
The unit’s popularity is growing. In early 2016, Transfrontier Africa opened up 10 new Mamba positions, and hundreds of passionate women submitted applications. “Even between recruitments, people are writing to us all the time,” Spencer says. “And even from neighboring countries – we’re getting [inquiries] from Swaziland, Mozambique, Botswana. Anybody who looks at our website or sees a newspaper article on the Mambas wants to be a Mamba.”
It’s no wonder – the Black Mambas have become a formidable force in the park. Though poachers still come into the reserve, poaching levels in Balule are down. In fact, according to Black Mamba promotional materials, snaring and poisoning activities in the reserve have decreased by 76 percent since the Black Mamba group began patrolling three years ago. The unit has also destroyed a total of 12 poaching camps, three more than when I visited earlier this year.
On-the-ground Black Mamba patrols are just one component of Transfrontier Africa’s anti-poaching operation. Spencer has also spearheaded an educational program that he sees as indispensable to the work. “What’s the point of us trying to build up a barrier to poachers coming into the reserve, if we’re not starting from the bottom, and preparing for a future?” he asks.
According to Spencer, local schools fail to teach environmental education and children have very limited knowledge of the wildlife reserves bordering their communities. To address these issues, Transfrontier began collaborating in 2015 with Lewyn Maefala, a 24-year-old university graduate from Pretoria, to set up the Bush Babies Environmental Education Program. Maefala studied nature conservation at the Tshwane University of Technology, and began working in Balule as part of her fieldwork year, a requirement for her degree. “Three months into my practicals, Craig asked what was my passion in conservation,” Maefala explains. “I said education.”
Working closely with Spencer, Maefala developed interactive lessons in ecology, biology, and environmental awareness, which she now presents at local primary schools. At present, 10 schools participate in the program, and Maefala aims to visit each school once a week. Black Mamba patrol members also participate in the education program, visiting the schools in their fatigues to talk to the kids about their work in the field. (Maefala wears a less intimidating khaki ranger uniform and baseball cap for her lessons.)
While Maefala is careful to interlink her lessons with existing school curriculum, she doesn’t refrain from introducing controversial subjects. At a primary school in the town of Ga-Masismale, which borders Balule, Maefala taps her long red fingernails against the projector as she shows a PowerPoint slide of a blood-covered rhino with its horn cut off. “Why are you hiding your face like you don’t want to see?” she asks when kids squirm in their seats. “This is the reality. Do you know why this [is] happening? Why must our uncles and brothers and fathers go out and do this?”
The students are surprisingly receptive to Maefala’s questions. “For money,” one student says. “If they want money, they must go and work,” Maefala responds.
Maefala says she never asks her students to disclose whether their family members poach, even though she’s certain most kids are related to – or know of – poachers in their community. Instead, she simply explains the dangers of going out into a reserve. “I create this environment of saying, You can trust me, I’m not going to say if you tell me that your uncle is a poacher,” she says. “We don’t want the kids to feel like they’re spies. We’d rather say, Here is the information. Take this information back home, and tell your family that if [the Black Mambas] catch a poacher, this is what will happen.”
While it is hard to quantify the exact way the Bush Babies Environmental Education Program influences the anti-poaching movement, Maefala is certain it’s having a positive effect. “The moment kids see me walking in, it’s like heaven on earth,” she says. “You can see them thinking, Yes! The teacher is here. And the moment you start telling the kids about the importance of a tree, you see in their eyes that they’re learning something.”
Maefala’s lessons are also reaching parents. “When I drive through the community, parents of students come up and talk to me,” she says. “They say, Thank you so much for teaching them this. I didn’t know about this either. And you see the child’s behavior has changed, and the parent is also in the process of getting there.”
Poaching is a violent business. Rhino horns, which are popular in Chinese medicine, can fetch up to $65,000 per kilo on the black market, and many poachers aren’t afraid to shoot at those who stand in the way of big profits. In the Black Mamba operation room in Olifants West, photos of rhinos with severed faces and hacked-up spines coat the wall, a daily reminder of the brutality that takes place in Kruger.
While Spencer preaches a nonviolent approach for the Black Mambas, he believes an armed unit is also an essential part of anti-poaching efforts in Balule. “You can’t have one without the other,” he says. When he established the Black Mambas in 2013, Spencer hired a private security company, Protrack, to take on this role and to assume the legal risks of using weapons. “Transfrontier Africa [doesn’t] want to carry weapon licenses because I don’t want to stand up in court, and explain why someone got shot,” Spencer says. “There are all these legal complications, so we went to Protrack and said we will pay you if you carry that burden for us.”
Vincent Barkas, co-founder of Protrack, assumes much of this burden. His creased, sun-hardened face seems to indicate he has a lot on his mind when I meet him at his office. He and his wife, Leigh, manage a team of 120 anti-poaching guards, all men, 23 of whom work in Balule Nature Reserve, often in grueling 12-hour shifts. Guards are posted in rhino “hot spots” around Balule, but they’re on-call 24 hours a day to travel to any problem areas and serve as backup to the Black Mambas. If a Mamba hears a gunshot, she radios the information to the Transfrontier Africa strategic management team, which includes Spencer and several other local and ex-pat conservationists. Once the managers assess the threat, if it’s deemed necessary, they contact Protrack and men bearing Dashprod assault weapons will rush to the scene.
“We are here in this reserve to check and see if there’s something suspicious. Then we report to the armed guards,” Felicia Mogakane says of the relationship between the Mambas and Protrack.
Still, when the Protrack guards come across poachers, it can be tricky to decide when – or if – they should pull the trigger. Under South African law, armed guards can legally shoot a poacher only if their life is in danger, which can be difficult to prove in court. Not to mention that corruption is rife within South African law enforcement – allegedly, when cases go to trial, cops are often paid off by poachers.
Despite these legal challenges, Barkas, like Spencer, sees the armed unit as a non-negotiable part of anti-poaching efforts in the park. He believes things will get more violent, not less violent, in the future, and that all guards – including the Black Mambas – will eventually need to be armed. “We’re having more and more armed contacts where the poachers stand their ground and shoot at our people,” he says. “How are [the Mambas] going to protect themselves against that?” He does, however, acknowledge that violence could be making the problem worse.
Spencer is quick to point out that the Black Mambas haven’t solved South Africa’s poaching crisis. Nonetheless, the Mambas are making their mark in the anti-poaching fight. Last year, their unique approach earned the group the United Nations “2015 Champion of the Earth Award” for inspiration and action, and placed the Black Mambas in the international spotlight.
The outfit’s popularity is not only drawing more attention to the poaching crisis – it’s serving as platform for women’s rights issues in South Africa as well. As Spencer puts it, there’s something about a young woman in uniform that captures the hearts of the public. “This is G.I. Jane with pizzazz,” he says. “There’s a huge movement in the world to uplift young women. People want to see woman prevail, take a stance, be seen, stick their necks out.”
While Spencer would love to have “a million Mambas at every entrance gate in Kruger National Park,” he’s currently capped the program at 36 guards because of financial constraints. Still, he hopes that other anti-poaching groups throughout Africa will draw inspiration from their tactics. “We don’t lose rhinos in areas where we have Black Mambas,” Spencer says, “so the model clearly works.”
For Black Mambas like Mogakane, these achievements couldn’t be more rewarding. “Ever since this project started, this reserve has [almost no] poaching,” Mogakane says. “I am so proud to be part of the Black Mambas because we are doing a good job, and we’re making a very good difference in this reserve.”
Elizabeth Claire Alberts is a freelance journalist based in Washington, DC whose work has appeared in Audubon, Alternatives Journal, Sierra, and The Dodo.