The Black Mambas, the first majority female anti-poaching unit, patrol the Kruger National Park’s western boundary. Their job is officially to look for signs of poachers entering the park, but their role encompasses far more. By Dianne Tipping-Woods

They don’t have the numbers – there are only 33 Black Mambas. They don’t have guns – the Black Mambas patrol unarmed. They don’t have military backgrounds or training – the Black Mambas are mainly women from villages close to the Kruger National Park‘s western boundary.

In fact, aside from their camo fatigues and sturdy black boots, they don’t have much in common with a typical anti-poaching unit at all. What they do have is guts – walking unarmed in Big Five territory is no joke. They also have a job to do. It’s not the biggest job, or the most important one in the fight against poaching, at least not at first glance.

I’m out on patrol with Shadu Hlangwana and Felicia Mogakane, checking the fence on the Kruger National Park’s western boundary.

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Snares that have been cleared in the course of anti-poaching patrols. Pictures by Di Tipping-Woods

“We’re tasked with patrolling the fence-line and looking for incursions: tracks that shouldn’t be there, a cut in the fence, suspicious markers or anything else that might show that there are poachers on Balule,” explains Felicia. [Balule is one of the Associated Private Nature Reserves that form part of the Greater Kruger National Park]. Felicia stops to bend down and have a look at a hole under the fence. This time, just some warthogs wanting to move to the other side.

If they do spot something suspicious, they report it to headquarters and then a much larger operation kicks in. An operation involving dogs, trackers, air support and, yes, lots of men with guns. That’s not where the Black Mambas’ role ends, though.

New boots being broken in on a dawn patrol.

New boots being broken in on a dawn patrol.

Not just a patrol unit

“More men with guns aren’t going to solve our poaching problems,” says Balule Warden Craig Spencer, who formed the first unit of Black Mambas in 2013.

Craig is a passionate advocate of an approach to anti-poaching that addresses what he calls the value line “that separates people who care about wildlife, and those who do not.” This means that aside from clearing snares and putting boots on the ground as a first line of defence, the Black Mambas’ role reaches beyond the boundaries of the park, into the communities and homes of the women who form part of this unit.

“The Black Mambas are mothers and breadwinners. They have status in their communities that carries real influence,” Craig says. “Poachers are currently role models. What if we can make these women role models instead?”

The effectiveness of this approach is not immediately apparent and therefore hard to quantify. All the more so since daily, life-threatening encounters are turning conservation areas into battlegrounds. This can make it difficult to convince people that the power of the Black Mambas lies in exactly the qualities that make the women who form the unit so different to other anti-poaching units.

Felicia Mogakane is committed to her job despite being scared at times.

Felicia Mogakane is committed to her job despite being scared at times.

Women changing their worlds

Many of the stories about the Black Mambas on major news networks and in international newspapers dwell on the idea of the Black Mambas as kick-ass women fulfilling a traditionally male role.

It’s the other stories that grab my attention though, the ones the Black Mambas tell each other as we walk. “I miss my little boy, but my family is proud of me,” says Shadu, who supports her son and mother. Felicia talks about how she is sometimes scared out in the bush, of poachers and of wildlife, but believes that her job is important, although her husband worries about her.

Winnie Nyathi tells me about her interest in wildlife and how she tells her two children about the animals she encounters each day. “Elephants have beautiful families. I tell them that if you kill an elephant, you are killing something that should be loved.” It’s a slow process, but the longer we walk, the more I see how, step by step, these women can begin to change the world.

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Winnie Nyathi and colleagues on parade.

About the Black Mambas

The Black Mambas patrol the boundaries of the 52,000ha Balule Nature Reserve, part of the Greater Kruger National Park. Their role is twofold; to provide a visible presence and detect incursions, but also to help their communities to understand that the benefits of conservation outweigh the benefits of poaching.

Putting boots on the ground

The Black Mambas are supported by HI-TEC, which recently supplied all the members with waterproof boots. In addition, the company has also launched a global anti-poaching awareness campaign. Every pair of HI-TEC shoes sold carries a swing tag with the message “Stop the rhino killing”.