Women in SA continue to lead the fight to save our natural wonderlands

File picture: Armand Hough/ANA Pictures

“Poachers have big guns, but we are not afraid. We are fighting for our animals and showing people that women can be beautiful and strong.”

This was 22-year-old Leitah Mkhabela, speaking to the Telegraph newspaper on the dangers of a nearly all-female anti-poaching squad – The Black Mamba Anti-Poaching Unit. The Unit is the first majority female anti-poaching unit in South Africa and was founded in 2013 by Transfrontier Africa NPC, to protect the Olifants West Region of Balule Nature Reserve.

The Black Mambas comprises young women who come from communities close to the Balule Game Reserve and the Kruger National Park. The unit not only focuses on conducting anti-poaching operations, but also educates communities in the area on the benefits of conservation and rhino protection.These women risk their lives to try and stop the scourge of poaching.

This majority women’s squad epitomizes the strength and courage upon which households and communities are built, the bedrock of society. Their worth lies in their actions and their gender does not prescribe how they are defined.

“The objectives of the Black Mamba project are not only the protection of rhinos through boots on the ground but also through being a role model in their communities” are sentiments expressed on the squad’s website. The 32 young women and two men who make up the unit want their communities to understand that the benefits are greater through rhino conservation rather than poaching. They are concerned for their children’s sake as the false economy has brought loose morals and narcotics into their communities.

Within the first year of operation, the Black Mambas were invited to expand into other regions and now protect all boundaries of the 52,000ha Balule Nature Reserve, part of the Greater Kruger National Park.

The unit’s approach is based on the concept of the “Broken Window” philosophy which strives to make particular areas of influence the most undesirable, most difficult and the least profitable place to poach any species. The squad has a passion for wildlife and rhino conservation and serves as the voice in their respective communities particularly through their conservation work.

In 2015 the all-women Black Mambas Anti-poaching Unit was awarded the United Nations’ top accolade – the Champions of the Earth Award – for the work they do to combat wildlife crime. The unit was further lauded for their work by John Scanlon, Secretary-General of the Secretariat of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). The mambas have also garnered international attention with a documentary on their work.

Time magazine stated that, “Since it was first created in 2013, South Africa’s Black Mambas Anti-Poaching Unit has arrested six poachers, shut down five poacher camps, and reduced snaring (the practice of baiting and trapping animals) by 76% in the Balule Private Game Reserve. It will come as little surprise, therefore, that the 26-member ranger unit, comprised mainly of women, has been honored by the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) with its highest environmental prize — the Champions of the Earth Award.”

“Honest and hardworking park rangers devote their lives to protecting our natural resources and cultural heritage and, in some areas, these brave men and women regularly encounter well-resourced groups of poachers, equipped with high caliber weapons, who do not hesitate to use violence or threats of violence against them,” said Scanlon.

Government’s recognition through action is crucial in continuing this initiative aimed at real change in the field of nature conservation as well as through enhancing people’s understanding of the harm caused by poaching.

The Black Mambas can play a crucial role in determining the definition or redefining the African girl child through their example.The roles these women play in their communities cannot be over-emphasized. They are the teachers of future generations in the importance of nature conservation and its importance to South Africa.

Thembani Makata is National Secretary General of the South African Students Congress (SASCO) and Deputy Secretary General of the South African Youth Council