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How women are protecting wildlife in South Africa

'I am not afraid, I know what I am doing and I know why I am doing it' Photograph: (Others)

WION Noida, Uttar Pradesh, India Mar 08, 2017, 12.30 PM (IST) Madhumita Saha

As the sun rises over the Olifants river in the Kruger National Park, around 26 women, clad in olive and khaki, step out of their huts to take on poachers. They patrol for miles every day, keeping the mighty rhinos, antelopes, cheetahs and wild dogs of South Africa out of harm's way. Far from the usual fragile, soft and fair-skinned image of women, these members of Africa’s first all-women anti-poaching unit call themselves the Black Mambas. 

Named after the dreaded, venomous snake of sub-Saharan Africa, the 26 women of the anti-poaching unit have been responsible for arresting six poachers, reduce snaring by 76 per cent and putting 5 poachers' camps and 2 bush-meat kitchens out of action over the last two years.

It is well-known that African rhinos are an endangered species in South Africa but few are aware of the speed at which these animals are fast disappearing from the face of the earth. Since 2008, poachers have killed at least 5,940 rhinos. The crisis is spreading to the neighbouring countries of South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe, all of which have experienced an exponential increase in poaching. For Africa as a whole, the total number of rhinos poached during 2015 was the highest in two decades. And if poaching continues at this rate, we would see rhino deaths overtaking births in 2016-2018. This means rhinos will become extinct in the very near future. 

Much of the poaching can be attributed to the growing demand for rhino horns in Asian countries, mainly Vietnam and China. Though there is no scientific validation for its use, rhino horns are being used for ages to treat a wide range of conditions - from cancer to hangovers. The price that rhino horn fetches in the black market has also made it a coveted status symbol; people with wealth dish out a hefty amount to procure it. Its wide-ranging appeal as a decorative piece to medicinal usages has attracted the involvement of ruthless criminal syndicates which use high-tech equipment to track down and kill the animals.  

Black Mambas are all local recruits. They come from economically disadvantaged communities, with big families and often they are the sole breadwinners.
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In this violent, illegal and masculine world of the poacher, the Black Mambas are an aberration. They do not rely on guns and bullets as tactics to fight poaching. Rather, they take the route of nature conservationists, striving to create a strong bond and educate the local communities about the benefits of saving their natural heritage.

Any conservation effort would be incomplete and, more importantly, an imposition on the locals if it does not work towards including them. Transfrontier Africa, the organisation behind the Black Mambas, understands this adequately. Hence, the Black Mambas are all local recruits. They come from economically disadvantaged communities, with big families and often they are the sole breadwinners. Their vision for a poaching-free world coincides with a better future for their dear ones.

Black Mambas go through a rigorous six-week training programme, prior to being deployed with an existing unit where they gain experience. During the training period, they spend two weeks all by themselves, learning how to survive alone in the jungle and picking up the behavioural patterns of wild animals. Do they get scared? Yes, of course. Scared and shy. But as one of the trainers pointed out, “they emerge a different person from the training.”

The older and more established schools of conservationists have initially placed little worth on the capabilities of the Black Mamba team. But the women have not only fought the brutal onslaught on nature successfully, they have also taken steps to combat poverty and illiteracy, for instance, in the Maseke region. Integrating social and economic development programmes with the more focused goals of conservation is very crucial as poaching is inextricably linked to poverty which is rampant in the region. 

Poor and unemployed villagers, particularly the youths, are the constant target of the poaching teams. One of the team members point out, “because of lack of education, locals think of the day and not of the future.” Black Mambas, therefore, start early, focusing on children so that the little ones develop a positive and intimate connection with the Park and everything therein. 

Fighting heavily armed, ruthless, global criminal syndicates with VHF and GPS transmitters and few specialist dogs does not sound like the ideal job to have
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From far, we laud their work but can do little to reduce the dangers they face. And, the dangers are real. Fighting heavily armed, ruthless, global criminal syndicates with VHF and GPS transmitters and few specialist dogs does not sound like the ideal job to have. But these women are fearless. Leitah Mkhabela, a member of the Black Mamba rangers, said: "I am not afraid, I know what I am doing and I know why I am doing it. If you see the poachers, you tell them not to try. Tell them we are here and it is they who are in danger."

In recognition of the work they have done in combating poaching and the courage they have shown to accomplish the goal, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) have awarded Black Mamba with the Champion of the Earth Award in 2015. In presenting the award, the UNEP executive director Achim Steiner said, "Their many successes are a result of their impressive courage and determination to make a difference in (to) their community. The Black Mambas are an inspiration not only locally, but across the world to all those working to eliminate the scourge of the illegal wildlife trade.” 

As the dusk descends, Black Mambas go back to their families. The light of the bonfire melts into the fading light outside. These women are not in the war zone but they are fighters - one with care and commitments. They have taken up the cudgel to protect their hearth and the wild herds alike. In protecting the rhinos, they secure their family and, most importantly, find a purpose in life.

Madhumita Saha

The writer is an academic-turned journalist. She taught history at Drexel University and New York University before joining WION.

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