The Black Mambas mean business! Photo: Julia Gunther.
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Black Mamba Felicia and student. Photo: Anneka Svenska.
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South Africa's conservation success story: the 'Black Mambas' mean business!
19th February 2016
A unique, all female anti-poaching unit has transformed the conservation picture in South Africa's Kruger National Park, writes Anneka Svenska. In just three years the Black Mambas have cut poaching by more than 75%, removed over 1,000 snares, and become role models for local youth. And this weekend they arrive in the UK to collect Helping Rhinos' 'Innovation in Conservation' Award.
If the world out there can give a hand and help him to expand the group of Black Mambas, I think that at the end of the day we will win this war, because at each and every corner we will be there. The poachers will know that they don't have a chance.
A rhino lies dead; her horn hacked from her skull, the remnants dug out deeply from her sinus cavity.
All is quiet except for a rustling behind the body; a small calf emerges, only a few weeks old.
What will be the fate of this rare animal that is hunted daily for its horn, carrying a street value higher than cocaine?
Seems strange that this inept substance, made of nothing more than keratin, to which our fingernails are made of, can be fuelling such crime around the world.
Sadly, this is a regular occurrence in South Africa, where poaching has reached an all-time high. Rhinos are now unable to reproduce at the same rate to which they are slaughtered every year.
However, all is not lost, as I have heard of a reservation lying to the East of Kruger called Balule, where the Black Mambas, a 26-strong all-female anti-poaching unit, has managed to reduced bush meat and rhino poaching by a staggering 76%.
Founded by Transfrontier Africa in 2013, they have so far removed more than 1,000 snares, destroyed five poachers' camps, put two bush meat kitchens out of action, and had six poachers arrested. And they arrive in the UK this weekend to receive the prestigious Helping Rhinos 'Innovation in Conservation' Award.
I was determined to find out just why this project has been so successful and also to meet the strong women who have made this a reality.
Alongside Simon Jones of Helping Rhinos and presenter and producer Nigel Marven, we all pack our cases and head off to Balule, to film alongside the Mambas, to truly live their lives, to find out their passions, their fears and why their presence has been so successful, not just for the animals, but also for the poor communities they support.
Combatting indiscriminate carnage of cable snares
The Mambas rise at 5am every morning, taking shifts to walk a gruelling 20km to check the boundary fences for incursion. The baking 40 degree heat means that their duties need to be wrapped up early.
They check for signs of entry, as well as for snares laid in the night. Their role is like a British 'bobby on the beat' - to provide a physical presence in the area. I walk with two Mambas Siphiwe Sithole and Felicia Mogakane.
"What did your family think when you told them you wanted to join The Black Mambas?" I ask.
"They were scared that it would be dangerous and I would be eaten by a lion", Siphiwe answers.
"How has being a Mamba helped your family?" I ask Siphiwe.
"It has helped me a lot, because now I can take care of my kids, I know if I want to do something now, I've got something in my pocket ... I am the bread winner."
As we walk through the bush, The Mambas chance upon a dead Cape Buffalo which had been trapped by its leg by a wire snare. The Mambas explain to me that it could have taken up to five weeks to die, as buffalo are equipped to deal with extreme draught.
We find several snares in one patch and set to clearing them. There are two types of snare, fine wire snares and larger thicker cable snares. It's the cable snares which are responsible for dismembering large animals such as elephants, as their strong wire cuts deeply through the legs.
Inspiring conservation role models for Africa's youth
Later on, as we are driving to a local school, I can't help but notice that the wilds of Africa seem to be a distant memory; everything is electrically fenced in and owned by game lodges. I ask, "Do you feel that the local people poach because they feel that the land and the animals do not belong to them any more?"
Siphiwe answers, "In their mentality, there is that thing that conservation is for white people. Did you see a black person running a private lodge or a private game reserve? So they feel that they have to finish the animals so the white people won't have them."
This makes me sad that this is a common feeling amongst the communities out there, however The Mambas explain that they feel that poaching is still inexcusable and a lazy way out, but the monetary rewards are so high that it's a quick way to make huge amounts of money, so poaching rhinos is driven by greed. The rich gangsters use poor local trackers to find the rhinos, so they don't have to do their own dangerous work.
Finally we arrive at Masake primary school, it is still early, around 9.30am, and we see children eating lunch. Black Mamba education officer, Lewyn, explains that this is often the only meal the children get a day, as they come from such poor backgrounds.
Lewyn's conservation lessons named The Bush Baby Programme is really fun, uplifting and the children learn in English. Black Mambas Siphiwe and Felicia attend lessons often as conservation role models. I can see that the children are really taking in the positive message these strong ladies are conveying.
The day ends with a visit with a Rhino Orphanage run by charity Rhino Revolution, supported by The Black Mambas who provide security for these precious, rhino calves. I feed Fatty, the largest rhino and my heart melts. Each rhino costs about £450 a month to wean and if this orphanage is to expand to take in the huge amounts of orphan victims, it will need to raise much more funds and fast. With dedicated staff and the Mambas supporting this project, I truly hope it gets the support it deserves.
All in all, I can conclude that the Black Mambas are a very strong presence in Balule and with a record drop in poaching in their reserve by 75%, it is definitely working. This concept is a fantastic one and hopefully it will set precedent for similar units to be set up all over Africa.
Siphiwe: "If the world out there can give a hand and help him to expand the group of Black Mambas, I think that at the end of the day we will win this war, because at each and every corner we will be there. The poachers will know that they don't have a chance."
Anneka Svenska is a conservationist & broadcaster who specialises in films covering serious wildlife crime, wildlife & environmental conservation and education surrounding misunderstood apex predators.
Most recently Anneka has returned from filming alongside Image Impact Films and producer/presenter Nigel Marven in South Africa, where they created a short film to highlight the work of The Black Mambas and charity Helping Rhinos.
UK visit schedule
Sunday 21st Feb - Black Mambas arrive in the UK.
Monday 22nd Feb - Black Mambas and Richard Vigne (CEO of Ole Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya) give a talk at Port Lympne Reserve in Kent.
Tuesday 23rd Feb - Black Mambas and Richard Vigne give a talk to staff at London Zoo.
Thursday 25th Feb - Black Mambas sightseeing in London, including a trip to the House of Commons.
Friday 26th Feb - Black Mambas return to South Africa in the late afternoon.
The Black Mambas trip to the UK is sponsored by RACS Group.
United Nations Champions of the Earth Award.
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