Caution: Black Mamba Territory
The sisters of the Black Mamba Anti-Poaching Unit (APU) are not doing it for themselves but for the entire world—putting their own lives on the line every day in an effort to save our precious rhino. The APU was founded by Transfrontier Africa to protect the Olifants West region of Balule Nature Reserve, which forms part of the Greater Kruger National Park.
The area in which the Black Mambas patrol is a free-range savannah ecosystem with open borders to the Kruger. The highly endangered black rhino as well as the white rhino are strongly represented in this location.
Since the unit went into operation in 2013, the number of rhinos lost to poaching has plummeted; snaring and illegal bush-meat incidents have been reduced by 75%; and nine poacher incursions have been detected, leading to the arrests of the offenders. The unit has also shut down five poacher camps. Twenty-six unarmed members conduct foot patrols, observations, vehicle checks and road blocks, and educate their peers on the importance of conservation and gathering intelligence from their communities.
Restoring dignity and self-worth, and empowering communities to play their part, are crucial components of efforts to combat the illegal wildlife trade across the globe, and the Black Mambas are an outstanding example of success. Their brave actions are sending the message to others in South Africa and beyond, that communities themselves can prevent this illicit trade—which threatens not only iconic species such as rhino and elephants but puts money in the hands of criminal gangs, thus increasing insecurity and risking livelihoods.
The Mambas patrol the reserve—part of the two-million-hectare Greater Kruger National Park and home to rhinos, leopards, lions, elephants and several other animals—for three weeks at a time, walking almost 20 kilometres a day. The rangers reportedly know the land so well that a mere misplaced stone is enough to alert them to the presence of poachers.
It will come as little surprise, therefore, that the Black Mambas APU has been honoured this year by the United Nations Environmental Program with its highest environmental prize, the Champions of the Earth Award.
Robbie Stammers asked the unit’s brainchild Craig Spencer, ecologist and head warden of Balule Nature Reserve, and Amy Clark—project administrator for Transfrontier Africa—a few questions.
When was the Black Mamba initiative started?
CS: The Black Mamba APU was founded by Transfrontier Africa and created to protect the Olifants West region of Balule Nature Reserve—beginning with a team of six at the beginning of 2013, and one year later expanding to cover the entire reserve. We therefore maintain and protect the western boundary fence of the Greater Kruger National Park, a significant barrier between human-wildlife conflict and poachers entering the protected areas’ network; and supplying protection to all the wild animals that roam freely throughout Balule.
How did the decision to employ women come about?
AC: A different approach was needed to battle poaching, as over the past few centuries the same ‘weapons’ or tools have been used to combat this issue. Although these tools worked at the time, they only temporarily solved the problem. Craig Spencer came up with this long-term solution.
How did you decide on the name Black Mamba?
CS: The black mamba snake is fast, lethally venomous and highly aggressive when threatened. The women of our APU are exactly that when it comes to protecting their area of operation.
What are the motivations of the members to participate in this unit?
AC: All the women who have been selected and who joined the Black Mamba APU have a huge passion for wildlife. They are here to do their part to protect their natural heritage. They want their children and children’s children to enjoy nature as they are so fortunate to do today.
What is your daily routine?
APU: Patrols are conducted daily throughout the reserve and within the buffer zones on our borders. By day, these patrols are conducted on foot, and by night conducted by vehicle. Patrols include the policing of our borders, and bush sweeps conducting searches for snares of bush-meat poachers.
How vast is the poaching crisis in Africa and, most importantly, in the Kruger?
AC: The rate of poaching throughout South Africa is approximately two rhino per day.
How do you protect yourself from spies—or even poachers themselves—who want to sneak in with the teams?
CS: Our teams are subjected to regular lie detector tests to ensure their integrity. We are very happy to say that we have not had a single staff member fail the test.
What do you do when you catch a poacher red-handed?
AC: When poachers are apprehended, they are turned over to SAPS, along with any evidence collected.
What successes can you record?
CS: The two main types of poaching we deal with on a daily basis are bush-meat poaching through the use of snares, and rhino poaching involving poachers breaking into the reserve to shoot and de-horn the animals. Since their deployment in 2013, snaring within the Black Mambas’ area of operation has dropped by 76% within the boundaries of the reserve and 68% within the buffer zones. With the Black Mambas’ constant visual policing, any signs of poachers entering the reserve in order to poach rhino have been picked up quickly—allowing for the poachers to be tracked and caught before having the chance to locate and poach rhino.
If you could pick three words to describe the team, what would they be?
AC: Loyal, passionate and an inspiration to the women of Africa.
Source: The Intrepid Explorer