There’s a war raging across the African continent, but we don’t hear much about the hard work done on the front lines. At the center of the conflict? Rhino horns.
They’re highly sought after on the black market, worth more than gold, and people will kill—or be killed—to poach them. In South Africa, home to about 80 percent of the world’s rhino population, 1,028 rhino were poached in 2017, amounting to nearly three rhinos killed every day, per official stats from the South African Department of Environmental Affairs. Thankfully, those numbers are down from 2016, in part thanks to patrols by the Black Mambas, a mostly female anti-poaching unit based in the Balule Nature Reserve in South Africa’s Greater Kruger National Park. Their mantra: If we don’t stop the poaching, who will?
“I want to protect nature and make sure that my children and future generations can see rhinos and all other wildlife [in real life], not just [as] pictures in books,” says Collet Ngobeni, a 33-year-old member of the Black Mambas.
Ngobeni is one of 33 women (and two men) fighting off the destruction of the rhino population in Kruger Park, once considered a hotbed of poaching. Unlike most anti-poaching units, this one is almost entirely comprised of women—and the members don’t use guns. It sounds bonkers. Anti-poaching units are usually made up of heavily armed military men who descend on poachers in helicopters. But the Black Mambas believe the battle needn’t be fought with bullets. They are the eyes and ears on the ground. Their goal isn’t to kill poachers—it’s to save the rhinos.
“BEING A BLACK MAMBA EMPOWERS YOU. THROUGH OUR HARD WORK, CONFIDENCE AND ALL OUR ACHIEVEMENTS, WE HAVE MADE PEOPLE FROM ALL OVER THE WORLD ACCEPT US.”
The unit spends much of its day on foot in the field. They seek out poachers on daily monitoring patrols, gather intel, remove snares meant to trap wild animals, and scour for bush meat kitchens and poacher camps. If they come face-to-face with a poacher, they’re armed with walkie talkies to call for backup. Crossing the thicketed plains of the reserve for eight hours a day in the heat (temperatures can easily pass 100 degrees) is not an easy assignment. And poachers aren’t the only threat—so are the elephants, buffalo, and lions in their tracks.
“The biggest challenge is the training and working in the bush with the dangerous animals,” says Ngobeni. “But what I love most about my work is being in nature and seeing the animals”—animals that she hopes will be around for the younger generations to encounter.