In South Africa, rhino poaching is a major problem. Home to the largest rhino population in the world, the country is an incredibly important region for conservation – but poaching levels have spiked dramatically in recent years. In 2007, 13 rhinos were recorded as having been killed; by 2015, that number had risen to 1,175. The Western black rhino was declared extinct in 2011, with the primary cause identified as poaching. All five remaining rhino species are currently listed as threatened.
In the vast Kruger National Park, on the border of South Africa and Mozambique, poachers are rife. But thanks to the Black Mambas – a crack team of highly-trained young women – the endangered animals are being protected. And now, the Mambas’ story is being turned into a Hollywood movie.
Aged between 20 and 30 years old, the Black Mambas are tasked with disbanding groups of poachers they encounter during their patrols of the 100,000 acre national park, Konbini reports. Just as adept at handling lions, elephants and rhinos as they are at sending poachers running, the women also free any animals they encounter who have been caught in traps.
Despite their military uniforms, the team don’t carry guns. However, each Mamba undergoes intensive training and paramilitary education before joining the team – and they’re able to call on armed guards for assistance if they run into serious trouble.
And the women’s presence appears to be working. There has been a 56% drop in poaching cases in Kruger National Park’s Balule nature reserve since the Black Mambas started patrolling the area, according to Amy Clark, the co-director of NGO Transfrontier Africa.
The original idea for the Black Mambas came from the warden of Balule reserve, Craig Spencer. His approach, he told the Guardian, acknowledged the disparity between the richness of the private reserve and the poverty of the surrounding communities – a gulf which leads many to see poaching as a legitimate way to make money to feed their families.
“The problem really is that there is this perception that has developed in the communities outside the park, they see a uniformed official and think we are the sheriff of Nottingham, they see the poachers as Robin Hood,” he said.
By hiring women from those same impoverished communities, providing them with training and skills and a steady income, the park has been able to change perceptions of poaching. Now, instead of seeing it as a financial opportunity, many see the practice as a threat to their region.
For Black Mamba Leitah Mkhabela, the group's success has helped redefine gender roles in her community, where jobs for women can be scarce.
“This job teaches me how to take care of money, it teaches me how to behave when a woman is working for herself,” Mkhabela told Seeker. “It made me grow up. A lot of ways this job has changed me.”
To sponsor one of the Black Mambas or help their anti-poaching and environmental education efforts, you can donate here.
Main image: Facebook/Black Mamba Anti-Poaching Unit