In one of the most intensely poached locations on the planet, a typical day for a Black Mamba officer starts with an early march towards the fenced perimeter of the Balule reserve. In a world where just a kilogram of rhino horn can fetch up to £16,000 on the black market, a breach in the fencing could be an indication of the worst – the trail of a poacher.
However, the Mambas are so familiar with the boundaries of the park that such a breach would never escape their notice. Trained by a local charity, the Black Mamba APU (Anti-Poaching Unit) combats the poaching epidemic in East Africa while upending traditional gender roles in the region.
The 26-strong group, while unarmed, acts as a formidable police presence during regular night vigils. Although conservation remains a male-dominated profession in South Africa, each of the female Black Mambas is a fully-registered security guard with the power of arrest. ‘I am not afraid,’ says Leitah Mkhabela, a member of the Black Mamba rangers. ‘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.’
Since it was founded in 2013, the Black Mamba APU has helped in the arrest of six poachers, removed over 1,000 snares and has seen snaring reduced by more than 75 per cent. Because of their work, five poachers’ camps and two bush meat kitchens have been detected and put out of action. As a result, the unit has ensured that not a single rhino has been killed within their jurisdiction in over ten months. By way of contrast, during the same timespan, 23 rhinos have been killed in a neighbouring reserve.
For the APU’s sensitivity to the environment, the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) has awarded the Black Mamba APU the Champions of the Earth Award. It fulfils Goal 15 of the Sustainable Development Goals.
‘Community-led initiatives are crucial to combating the illegal wildlife trade,’ says Achim Steiner, Executive Director of the UNEP, ‘and the Black Mambas highlight the importance and effectiveness of local knowledge and commitment. Their many successes are a result of their impressive courage and determination to make a difference in 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.’
Rhino poaching has increased by a staggering 12,000 per cent since 2004, with as many as 1,215 of the animals killed in just South Africa last year. Fuelled by the infrastructure of globalisation, the horn market has exploded in Vietnam and China where it is touted for (unproven) medicinal benefits.
In the communities surrounding Balule, rife unemployment and low living standards leads poachers to be celebrated as Robin Hood-types. There is a stark conflict of interest between the community and the park. To improve the situation, the Black Mamba officers use their downtime in their home communities to deter children from the poaching lifestyle and, by example, encourage them to protect the park.