They work dauntlessly in a game reserve, six hours a day to protect endangered wildlife. They’ve won an international award from the United Nations in recognition of their efforts to keep poachers away from rhino.

They’re not specialised, tactical operatives, but extraordinary women pouring their passion and hard work into ensuring the future of South Africa’s wildlife remain secured.

These are the women of the Black Mambas Anti-Poaching Unit, based at the 400 square kilometre Balule Game Reserve near Hoedspruit in Limpopo. Balule borders Kruger Park, there’s no fence between the two areas, and covers a stretch of the Oliphants river.

We first heard of the Black Mambas last year, when they won the UN Environment Programme’s (UNEP) Champions of the Earth award. The award reflected a full 18 months without a loss of animals to poaching, and reduction in attempted snaring and poisoning activities by 76% within the reserve. So we couldn’t resist it when they invited us to visit them to observe their work.

Sadly however, just as we turned up their incident free stretch was ended: last week one rhino was poached, which goes to show that no matter how good you are, staying ahead of the criminals is always a challenge.

In the beginning

The Black Mambas started out as a small group of six back in 2013.

The unit was formed by the game reserve as part of Department of Environmental Affairs’ (DEA) community job creation initiative, the Environmental Monitors Programme (EMP). EMP is a partnership between government and host reserves in Limpopo, KwaZulu-Natal, Northern Cape and Mpumalanga, and falls under the DEA’s Expanded Public Works Programme. It is funded directly from the budget of the Environmental Protection and Infrastructure Programmes (EPIP).

The DEA provides wages for the rangers, while the reserves cover all other costs and needs. Through the Black Mambas, the department also aims to promote job-creation for women in a male-dominated area.

Today, the Black Mambas are made up of 36 people, most of whom are women. While the Mambas don’t carry guns themselves, they work alongside a squad of 23 armed rangers.

Unarmed, but fearless enough to take poachers head on

Leitah Mkhabela, one of the Mamba team, had always had an interest in the environment and conservation. She spent her last three years of high school at college in Mpumalanga which specialises in enivronmental subjects.

Leitah Mkhabela
Leitah Mkhabela, one of the Black Mambas, at their HQ in Balule.

After finishing high school a former schoolmate – who was one of the first six to join the Black Mambas – told her about   a recruitment drive for more people to join the group. As a result, Mkhabela joined in 2014.

None of the Black Mambas have any formal higher education trainer in the ranger field, but if they impress during the interview process they are taken through intensive physical and theoretical training to become an Environmental Monitors ranger.

“We live on camp at the reserve and start work at 6:30,” says Mkhabela, “Once a month, our leader does a morning inspection to see if we and our duty notes are in order, but on ordinary days, we just head out around the reserve from the morning.”

The inspection lasts about 15 minutes and is conducted military style: during inspection team members can be ordered to drop and do pushups.

“It’s difficult waking up early everyday, going out into the bush on foot,” Mkabela says, “We have to wear hot work gear and all the time you know in the back of your mind that you might run into a poacher who’s armed while you have no weapons. Or a wild animal which may charge at you.

“But we do it because we love nature and want to protect it and with our training. We know what we’re doing. I wake up knowing I’m going to protect endangered animals.” she adds.

The Black Mambas trek roughly 21 kilometres around the reserve everyday, through some of the hottest and coldest climate conditions in South Africa, clad in thick and heavy boots and camouflage overalls whether it’s 40 degrees or freezing.

Mambas also assist the specialised rangers when an animal needs to be darted and medically treated. They also go out into their local communities to help conduct environmental education workshops in various schools.

Black Mambas South Africa conservationists
Local schoolchildren being taught about the importance of wildlife conservation in the area.

According to head warden at the Balule Craig Spencer, Black Mambas deal mostly with what’s termed Level One poachers. These are groups  normally made up of about four men, who use very unsophisticated equipment. That’s not to say they don’t know what they’re doing: usually, they grew up or used to work in the reserve areas.

A mock demonstration of the Black Mambas field work

On the day we visited the Black Mambas, the reserve’s armed guards had found a small poachers’ camp. While they didn’t catch the owners, they did find their belongings. These included about 40 snares, clothes and even “muti”, which poachers believe will help them stay invisible while they carry out their missions.

While the bush is full of human danger, the scariest day on the job for 28-year-old Dedeya Nkwinika was, she says, when she saw an elephant and buffalo together in front of her.

“As time passes on, you get used to it. I’m no longer afraid of animals or even poachers, my favourite part of the job is actually when we catch poachers. I’m not armed, but when I catch a poacher, I feel so proud of myself. When I started, my family was afraid I’d be killed by wild animals, but I told them not to be. Now they’re so proud of me,” Nkwinika said.

“I’m no longer even afraid of the tsotsis [criminals], back home [laughs],” she concludes.

Dedeya Nkwinika
Mamba Dedeya Nkwinika says her scariest day on the job was encountering two of the Big Five together. On foot.

Black Mambas don’t come cheap

Arguably the biggest challenge facing anti-poaching efforts in South Africa is that the criminals will inevitably be better funded than the authorities. It costs R7 million a year to run the Black Mambas programme, but a large chunk of that is spent on road maintenance alone, so that rangers can move about the reserve quickly.

Before the department deployed the Black Mambas, Balule Game Reserve only had one tracker and hardly any resources.

“When rhino poaching began to soar in 2011, it hit our reserves very hard,” Spencer says.

The DEA has increased its spending on EMP by more than 50%, from R147 million between 2012 and early 2016, to R235 million between now and 2019. But the technology, wages and other expenses are not getting cheaper.

As a result, Balule still relies heavily on donations from concerned individuals and private entities.

Despite these challenges however, Spencer, his team and the Black Mambas continue to dedicate their lives to their work, because they understand the economic, social and environmental value wildlife conservation contributes to South African society.

For Mkhabela, Nkwinika and their teammates, the fact that they’re working in a male-dominated industry stopped being an intimidation long ago.

They now see themselves as being as normal as any other woman working to earn a living and support her family.