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They fight crime and protect the innocent, but they wear camo, not capes.
Members of South Africa’s all-female anti-poaching unit set out on foot and vehicle patrol every day to dismantle illegal operations and save the country’s rhinos from extinction.
Calling themselves the Black Mambas, their goal is to stem wildlife trafficking.
“We are fighting for the animals and showing people that women can be beautiful and strong,” 24-year-old Black Mamba Leitah Mkhebela told Bloomberg Environment Oct. 15.
As a first line of detection for poaching, the team of 36 women has brought critical attention to the African rhino crisis not only in South Africa but also in the rest of sub-Saharan Africa as well.
“They have proven themselves, and we would like to duplicate the idea elsewhere,” says Pitso Mojapelo, deputy director of programs at the Department for Environmental Affairs in Johannesburg.
More than 7,000 rhinos have been killed for their horns in sub-Saharan Africa in the past 10 years, according to Richard Thomas, global communications coordinator in the U.K. for TRAFFIC, an international wildlife trade monitoring network.
“Poaching activities in South Africa have been positively identified from rhino horn seizures in Thailand, Vietnam, Hong Kong, and Malaysia,” Albi Modise, head of communications at the Department of Environmental Affairs in Cape Town, told Bloomberg Environment.
Rhino horn is used for a variety of purposes, including in traditional medicine as a health supplement, virility booster, and cure for hangovers. Baby rhinos without horns also are being killed for their mucous membranes, which are believed to hold great potency. Rhino horn in Asia is more valuable than gold and can sell for as much as $95,000 per kilogram (2.2 pounds), according to Bloomberg News.
Current estimates indicate about 25,000 rhinos remain in the wild in the region, Thomas told Bloomberg Environment in an interview Oct. 15.
The Black Mambas are their protectors. The rangers have become the new face of South Africa’s energized commitment to protect the African rhino.
The epicenter of rhino poaching is in Greater Kruger National Park, which covers about 7.4 million acres of African savanna, where 504 rhinos were killed last year by poachers, down from 662 in 2016.
Some of this drop in poaching is a result of the intensified enforcement activities that include the work of the Black Mambas, Mojapelo said.
To deal with sophisticated poaching criminal networks, South Africa has embarked on a range of integrated wildlife protection measures including perimeter fencing; cross-border patrols and trained guard dogs; real-time monitoring with satellites, GPS tracking devices, and drones; semi-natural captive breeding operations; and relocation of rhinos to safer sites.
South Africa has also created an international database of DNA samples of illegally traded horns confiscated abroad to pinpoint areas where rhino populations are at higher risk.
But even as Africa adopts more sophisticated ways to combat the illegal rhino trade, poachers have become more adept at avoiding detection.
“Criminal networks of Chinese origin operating in South Africa have been processing rhino horns locally into beads, bracelets, bangles and powder,” Sade Moneron, a TRAFFIC research officer in Johannesburg, and her associates said in a study the group published last year.
Rhino-horn disks also are being hidden in consignments of timber, cashew nuts, or passed as curio products made from cow horn, according to Thomas.
“It is a growing problem and methods have changed,” said Johan Jooste, commander of the endangered species section in South Africa’s Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation.
Efforts to deter poaching and trafficking in rhino horn, including lengthy jail sentences and denial of bail, are falling short.
That’s where the Black Mambas come in.
Founded in 2013 by Transfrontier Africa, the rangers have established a safe haven for rhinos in Balule Nature Reserve, an unfenced wildlife rangeland inside the Greater Kruger National Park.
The Black Mambas take their name from the fearsome sub-Saharan snake that strikes at its target repeatedly, injecting more lethal venom with each hit.
According to Craig Spencer, managing director of Transfrontier Africa and the co-founder of the Black Mambas, the team has dismantled more than 80 percent of the snares and traps, and destroyed poachers’ camps and bushmeat kitchens in the area. They also don night-vision gear and patrol known poaching areas after sunset.
Their efforts “have reduced bush meat poaching in the area by about 90 percent since 2014,” Spencer told Bloomberg Environment in an interview Oct. 13.
Black Mambas are trained on a variety of skills that include wildlife identification, hand-to-hand combat, paramilitary training, seizure, arrest, and courtroom procedures.
“The cadets are also trained on discipline, fitness, and bush skills,” Amy Clark, financial director of Transfrontier Africa and the co-director of the Black Mambas, told Bloomberg Environment.
International organizations marvel at their efforts. Last year, the unit received Eco-Warrior Silver Award, recognition for their defense and protection of endangered natural resources.
In 2015, the United Nations Environment Program bestowed the Champions of the Earth Award to the Black Mambas for combating illegal wildlife trade.
But despite the accolades they have received and the environmental awareness they have created beyond rhino protection initiatives, the Black Mambas face serious financial challenges.
“Although we would like to employ more women and expand to new areas, we are struggling daily to fund our current operations,” Clark told Bloomberg Environment.
The government typically pays rangers basic wages through its extended public works program, which is aimed at providing poverty and income relief through temporary work for the unemployed.
The government doesn’t regard Black Mambas as professional game rangers but as community wildlife monitors, an aspect that has kept their wages low, despite their high profile as rhino protectors.
Consequently, Transfrontier Africa is responsible for providing other services like training, uniforms, equipment, food, vehicles, fuel, and daily operational costs.
Despite the challenges, the women are upbeat about their work.
Dedeya Nkwinika, 30, who also hopes to make a career someday at the Kruger National Park, is proud to be a Black Mamba, but is often worried about poachers with big guns, while routinely Black Mambas carry only pepper spray and handcuffs during most of their patrols.
Towards this concern, Thomas pointed out that Black Mambas, like all wildlife protection agencies engaged in addressing rhino poaching in South Africa, face highly organized, well-equipped poaching gangs using sophisticated communications and distribution networks.
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