by Jeffrey Barbee
The battle against the poaching that kills a rhino every seven hours in South Africa has acquired a new weapon: women.
The Black Mambas are all young women from local communities, and they patrol inside the Greater Kruger national park unarmed. Billed as the first all-female unit of its kind in the world, they are not just challenging poachers, but the status quo.
The Mambas are the brainchild of Craig Spencer, ecologist and head warden of Balule nature reserve, a private reserve within Kruger that borders hundreds of thousands of impoverished people.
The private reserve’s scientists and managers have had to become warriors, employing teams of game guards to protect not only the precious rhinos but lions, giraffes, and many other species targeted by poaching syndicates. The Mambas are their eyes and ears on the ground.
When the poaching crisis started – in 2007 just 13 rhino were killed in South Africa – Spencer saw other reserves within Kruger “taking out the same old rusty tools that we fought this same old war with a hundred times over, rather than to say, Hey! Let’s get better tools, newer tools!”
[In Kruger rhinos are gunned down like this almost every day. This the Crime Scene Investigations Unit (names withheld to protect them) doing a post-mortem on a poached rhino to get the bullet that killed it so it can be linked the rifle that shot it, and then maybe the poacher himself. Only with good investigations can poachers be brought to justice. In Balule they have not lost a rhino in 11 months, warden Craig Spencer believes that the Black Mambas are responsible for the drop in deaths.]
In Kruger rhinos are gunned down like this almost every day. Here the Crime Scene Investigations Unit (names withheld to protect identities) conduct a post-mortem on a poached rhino to get the bullet that killed it so it can be linked to the rifle that shot it, and then maybe the poacher himself. Photograph: Jeffrey Barbee
He developed an approach that he says addresses the huge economic and cultural divide between the wealthy reserves and local communities, which he believes drives poaching.
Arrests in Kruger show that the poaching crews are not only foreigners but local South Africans from poor communities. Rhino horn is priced higher than the street price of cocaine and Spencer says cash from poaching turns communities against the park.
“The problem really is that there is this perception that has developed in the communities outside the park, they see a uniformed official and think we are the sheriff of Nottingham, they see the poachers as Robin Hood.”
“We are not going to police the problem away,” he says, standing in the shade of an acacia. “This war will never be won with bullets..”