These Women Reduced Poaching on one South African Reserve by 76 Percent

The “Black Mambas” just received a prestigious award for their work on behalf of rhinos, lions and cheetahs

A rhinoceros in South Africa's Kruger National Park, where the Black Mambas anti-poaching task force protects animals. Erik Joosten/ NIS/Minden Pictures/Corbis

Something’s on the hunt in South Africa’s Balule Private Game Reserve — a camouflaged unit that stalks the park’s perimeter, listens for gunshots and patrols for would-be poachers. They’re called the Black Mambas, and they’re an elite anti-poaching task force that’s reduced hunting in the reserve by a whopping 76 percent. That number is impressive, but its success isn’t the only thing that makes the group unique — the majority of the Black Mambas are women.

Now, the Black Mambas have been awarded the United Nations’ top environmental prize. In a release, the UN notes that it gave the group its coveted Champions of the Earth award in the “Inspiration and Action” category. The award recognizes not only the group’s strides toward protecting South Africa’s priceless wildlife, but its courage in combating poaching.

The group needs plenty of bravery to do its job, notes PBS NewsHour’s Larisa Epatko: They must stand down both poachers and wild animals. The group, which was named after one of the world’s deadliest snakes, was first deployed in 2013. As Jeffrey Barbee writes for The Guardian, the team was formed after the reserve’s head ecologist decided it was time to find better tools to fight both the scourge of poaching and the gap between the reserve, which is a popular place for expensive safaris, and the impoverished local community. These gaps encouraged poaching on the reserve, notes Barbee — that is, until the Mambas came to be.

And it’s working: The UN release notes that since 2013, the group “has helped arrest six poachers, reduced snaring by 76 per cent, removed over 1,000 snares and put 5 poachers' camps and 2 bush meat kitchens out of action.” That’s critical in an area where 1,215 rhinos were killed in 2014 alone.

Now, the unarmed, mostly-female force patrols the reserve, using special dogs, aerial support and other methods to detect and prevent poaching. According to the group’s website, they’re also dedicated to education and skills development within the community. In fact, says the group, all recruits are members of local communities and use their deployments to rise from unemployment, gain job skills and do something for local animals.

But the Black Mambas don’t just protect wildlife. They’re also heroines in their community, writes Barbee — there’s something empowering about a visible group of women making a difference. Leitah Michabela, who’s been working as a Mamba guard for over two years sums it up best. “Lots of people said, how can you work in the bush when you are a lady?” she tells Barbee. "But I can do anything I want.”

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