Poachers are depleting the elephant, tiger and rhino population. In a nature reserve in Greater Kruger National Park, unarmed women are fighting the illicit wildlife trade - and male skepticism.
They look for illegal camps, traps or fire sites. They are the Black Mambas and they patrol the Balule nature reserve in Greater Kruger National park. There are several teams deployed to stop poachers, but the Black Mambas are the only one to consist entirely of women.
21-year-old NoCry Mzimba was a Black Mambas founder member. "We want our children to be able to see and experience rhinos in the wild," the anti-poaching activist said. An estimated 13,000 rhinos live in the Balule nature reserve; one of the most intensely poached places on the planet.
When the Black Mambas were created in Spring 2013, they were just six young women. Now they number 30. They take their name from the venomous snake which is found mostly southern and East Africa. "It's aggressive and very poisonous, just the right name for our team," said Amy Clark from the group Transfrontier Africa, which set up the Black Mamba team.
"A lot people were initially very skeptical ," Clark said. "They simply didn't want to believe that women could this traditionally male job and be good at it."
Posssible link to terror groups
The battle against poaching gangs is moving up the political agenda. It is not just about saving endangered species for future generations. Western governments fear terrorist organizations and militias are funding their activities through illegal wildlife trafficking and they want disrupt their revenue flows.
Last year conservation experts from around the globe convened in London and agreed, among other things,on tougher penalties for poachers. At a second conference in Kasane, Botswana on Wednesday (25.03.2015), delegates reaffirmed their pledges, though there were few new ideas on how to tackle the damage done by the traffickers.
The Black Mambas are women of action and have a strict daily routine. "There is a parade at 7 a.m when orders are issued and the first patrols are sent out," said Mzimba. Like most of the women on the team, she comes from one of the villages situated close to the nature reserve.
"They have all successfully completed their schooling, but couldn't find a job. There's a lot of unemployment in South Africa," Clark said.
For most of the women, a place on the Black Mamba team was their first job since leaving school. Their wages are paid by an environmental protection fund, other non-labor costs are covered by donations.
It takes six weeks to become a Black Mamba. The women receive weapons training and are taught how to deal with animals in the wild. They also learn how find the traps laid by poachers and how to react when they come face-to-face with the poachers themselves.
An elephant caught in a poacher's trap. The animal was rescued by Black Mambas and its injuries were treated
Such encounters are quite frequent. Conservationists at the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) say the Kruger National park is one the poachers' main hunting grounds. Rhinos are their favorite game. A kilogram (2.2 pounds) of horn can fetch as much as $25,000 (23,000 euros) on the illicit wildlife market. Most of the poachers come from Mozambique. They are unemployed young people who acquire weapons from intermediaries in the poaching underworld.
Respect for the environment
The Black Mambas are generally unarmed when they go out on patrol. "They collect information, find traps, but it is not their job to catch the poachers. For that we propose we have armed units whom we call upon for assistance," said Amy Clark.
The results of the Black Mambas patrols are impressive. They say the number of traps put out by poachers has fallen by three quarters. Apart from two animals that were lost last month, not a single rhino has been caught by poachers since April 2013. "The poachers are afraid of us women, they don't know what to make of us, what our job is," NoCry Mzimba said.
The Back Mambas have long term goals. "We want to help stop people from becoming poachers in the first place and persuade them respect and protect the environment instead," Amy Clark said.