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Meet The Women Risking Their Lives To Save Elephants In South Africa

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Photo: Julia Gunther
Every 15 minutes, an elephant is killed for its tusks. A staggering 20,000 are slaughtered annually to fuel the illegal ivory trade.

They’re shocking statistics that need urgent, innovative responses – which is where the Black Mambas come in. They’re South Africa's first all-female anti-poaching team, made up of 36 rangers aged from 19 to 33, who patrol the Balule Game Reserve on the edge of Kruger National Park, located in the northeast of the country.

The 40,000 hectares of Balule are home to leopards, lions, cheetahs, hippos, elephants, and rhinos. The Black Mambas (named after a fast-moving venomous African snake) are the first line of defence against the poachers who threaten elephants and rhinos with extinction. And it’s working. Since the team was founded in 2013, the Mambas have identified and destroyed 12 poachers’ camps as well as reducing snaring and poisoning activities by 76%. Sadly, their proud track record of no rhino poaching deaths ended in September when three were killed in one attack.

“It’s so horrible when an elephant or rhino is killed, it feels like it's our fault” says Collet Ngobeni, 32, who has been a Mamba since they were set up. “If we step back, the poachers come again. There are greedy people about who don't think of the future.”

And a future without elephants is a real possibility; if the rate of killing continues at the current rate they will be wiped out within a decade. But the high value of ivory means poachers are willing to risk everything to get their hands on it. Latest statistics value ivory at about £1700 per kilo, while rhino horn, which some Asian cultures believe has medicinal powers, can be worth as much as £7500 per kilo.

It’s a job fraught with danger and difficulty

It’s no wonder that organised criminal networks with links to terrorism are involved. Leonardo DiCaprio’s documentary The Ivory Game, which has just been released on Netflix, explores the terrifying reality of what rangers go through in trying to protect wildlife. It’s a job fraught with danger and difficulty – not just the risk of encountering poachers with rifles, but also the wild animals themselves – which has claimed the life of 1,000 rangers in the last 10 years.

Which is why it’s surprising that the Black Mambas are unarmed. Instead they operate as the first line of detection, explains Craig Spencer, head warden of Balule: “When an incursion is spotted, they call in the armed unit and set up observation posts to assist that unit. The women's ability to pick up on subtle differences is often much better than the men.”

The Mambas spend long days and nights tracking humans and animals, observing the ground, searching for snares and identifying fence tampering. Everjoy Mathebula joined the team this year after her older sister Yenzikele, one of the founding members, encouraged her.

“I was scared the first time I went on patrol because I wasn’t used to going long distances in the bush and thought it would be too difficult” says Everjoy, 25. “We work eight hours a day and it’s tiring as the sun is very hot and you have to walk a long distance on hard, uneven ground.

“But I enjoyed it straight away. We go in groups of two or three wearing camouflage and carrying our radios and cell phones. It’s important work and I am so proud of my job. It has given me self confidence and proven that I can walk long distance.”

The women work in the park for three weeks at a time, living in an open camp where facilities are so basic they’re lucky if they have running water. When the 21 days are up, they have 10 days' holiday.
Many of the women are the main breadwinners of their families and leave young children behind to work; some are saving their monthly wages of around 3,500 rand (£200) to train for other careers such as nurses, pilots, paramedics or teachers.

Alongside saving endangered species, the Mambas are also challenging gender stereotypes in South Africa, where conservation is often considered a man's world – or even a white man’s world.

“Maybe we were not allowed to work as women before” says Everjoy. “But we are proving we can do good work. Men see that we are strong.

“The best part of being a Mamba is getting together and encouraging each other to do the work. We support each other and get stronger every day.”
The Black Mambas won the UN’s Champion of the Earth Award in 2015 and understand that the war on poaching will not be won with guns and bullets, but through local communities and education. They strive to create a strong bond and educate the communities that live on the boundaries of Balule and the Greater Kruger Park in the benefits of saving these animals as an integral part of their natural heritage.

“Other women want to join us, but we need more funding” says 28-year-old Mamba Felicia Mogakane. “If you really want to protect the animals you must have the people to do the hard work.

If we are not out on patrol, poachers notice.”

The Black Mambas rely on donations to continue protecting wildlife. For more information visit their website.

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