Cape Town (UN News Centre) - The Black Mamba Anti-Poaching Unit, a South African ranger group consisting mostly of women, has been named as one of the winners of the top United Nations environmental prize, Champions of the Earth. Bestowed by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), the award recognizes the “rapid and impressive impact” the unit has made in combating the poaching or rhinos, and the courage required to accomplish this task.
The Black Mamba Unit was launched in 2013 by Craig Spencer, ecologist and head warden of Balule nature reserve (a private reserve within the Greater Kruger national park in South Africa), home to an abundance of wildlife, including the rhino. The wealthy Balule reserve is, however, bordered by hundreds of thousands of impoverished people, a circumstance that Craig Spencer tells The Guardian is one of the main driving forces behind the dramatic rise in poaching the reserve has seen since 2007. Arrests in Kruger show that the poaching crews are not only foreigners but local South Africans from poor communities, and thus a symptom of the economic and social divide between the reserve and the nearby local community. In order to sustainably combat poaching in the Balule reserve, Spencer realized that the approach adopted would also have to address the underlying forces that motivate poaching. In an innovative effort to engage communities outside the park fence, the reserve hired 26 local jobless female high-school graduates, and put them through an intensive tracking and combat training program.
Since the unit went into operation in 2013, the number of rhinos lost to poaching has plummeted, snaring and illegal bush-meat incidents have reduced by 75 per cent, and nine poachers incursions were detected, leading to the arrests of the offenders. Not a single rhino has been poached in ten months, compared to almost two dozen in the neighbouring reserve. The 26 unarmed members of the unit conduct foot-patrols, observations, vehicle checks and road blocks etc, as well as educating their peers on the importance of conservation and gathering intelligence from their communities.
In addition to the impressive impact the Unit has had on reducing poaching numbers in the Balule reserve, the Black Mambas also act as an important source of inspiration for the women in their local communities. “Many other people, especially young ladies like us, they want to join us,” Michabela, one of the 26 female Black Mamba guards tells the Guardian. The Black Mambas, then, are an important success story not only in their contributions to ecosystem preservation, but also in their challenging of gender roles that traditionally restrict women from accessing the same employment opportunities as men. “Lots of people said, how can you work in the bush when you are a lady? But I can do anything I want.”