They call them the Black Mambas, a paramilitary unit of women recruited from local communities on the western boundaries of South Africa’s Kruger National Park to combat the scourge of rhino poaching for their horns, and the butchering of other animals for “bush meat”. Now numbering 36 (up from just six in 2013, when the Mambas were formed), these women are the eyes and ears of the armed tactical response units, comprising ex-soldiers, which are on constant patrol in the Balule Nature Reserve, a 50,000-hectare private concession that has seen a sharp drop in poaching thanks to their efforts.
Tomorrow, as the world celebrates International Women’s Day, campaigners will be pushing for “bold pragmatic action to accelerate gender parity” using the social media hashtag #BeBoldForChange. It’s a positive message that won’t be lost on the Black Mambas who, in their role as liaison officers, will this year continue to take their conservation message into schools, changing attitudes not only towards poaching but also the role of women in Africa.
All this is playing out against a seemingly endless, undulating green ocean of thorn trees and bush willow washing over baked ochre earth, where a kaleidoscope of wildlife roams freely between Kruger and neighbouring private reserves. It is a Noah’s Ark the size of Wales.
Fittingly, the commander of the anti-poaching operation is a distant relative of Sir Winston Churchill. As chief warden of Balule, Craig Spencer is a fiercely committed conservationist who tends to wander around in shorts and bare feet, accompanied by a three-legged German shepherd that guards him ferociously.
A son of the African soil, he was born in Botswana, although a grandfather was a cousin of Churchill. When he formed the Mambas – named after Africa’s most deadly snake – he modelled their modus operandi on British policing.
“It is a replica of a system that has worked in Britain for 100 years, with community involvement, bobbies on the beat, and an armed response unit,” he says. “The Mambas are our bobbies.”
Armed only with pepper spray and handcuffs, they patrol poachers’ hunting grounds and provide intelligence on suspects in their own communities. Once poachers have been identified, Spencer recruits “plants” to infiltrate the gangs and warn of impending raids. “Then we jump them,” he says.
There have been firefights, but the poachers are heavily outgunned and Spencer regrets that lives have been lost among them. “We don’t want to create widows and orphans,” he says. “We’re not going to win this on a battleground; we’re only buying time. The only thing that is going to work is getting the communities to support us.”
Part of the problem is that poachers bring wealth to poor communities, and Spencer draws a historical parallel: “They are Robin Hood, I’m the Sheriff of Nottingham, and this is Sherwood Forest.”
I meet some of Spencer’s bobbies in his office on the reserve before they go on patrol, and it is clear they are passionate about saving “their” wildlife. Yenzekile, a softly spoken 24-year-old, says: “I am proud to be in this team. It’s important to protect the nature for our children and grandchildren, and my community is proud we are doing this job because they feel we are making a difference.”
Leitah, 22, says: “Poachers have big guns, but we are not afraid. We are fighting for our animals and showing people that women can be beautiful and strong.”
In the heart of this wilderness are small lodges where lions sometimes come calling. They did on my first night at Greenfire Game Lodge, a discreet array of luxury timber and glass chalets perched above a seasonal river in the Balule reserve.
Our game drive next morning begins with a short walk to their alfresco dining room. “There was a kill during the night,” our guide says. “The lions should be gone – but if anything does happen, don’t run.”
Barely 200 yards from the lodge lies the half-eaten carcass of a female buffalo. It appears the lions had devoured another kill a few hours before, and this was merely dessert. When we return a day later, all that remains are the skull and fragments of rib cage. The lions had come back, followed by a pack of hyenas.
Exuberant life and violent death in the bushveld is a constant cycle. Five minutes into our drive on a rutted dirt track, we come to a zebra crossing – half a dozen of them in fact, wandering across our path undisturbed by our presence. Next a herd of impala bounds away, delicate doe-eyed antelopes known locally as “MacDo bucks” because they are everywhere and are savoured as fast food by lions and leopards.
A tawny eagle hovers in the warm, still air looking for a takeaway snack, then three giraffes appear, munching on the upper branches of trees. They gaze at us with interest, and placidly continue browsing.
Born to be ungainly, these comical marvels of nature move with surprising grace and elegance, like perambulating lighthouses. A dark chanting goshawk is perched dramatically on the skeleton of a knobthorn tree, a couple of warthogs trot off at our approach, wildebeest graze peacefully, and giant termite mounds rise like the ruins of ancient fortresses.
We stop for sundowners in a shelter on high ground overlooking a huge swathe of the Kruger, framed by a hazy profile of the Drakensberg Mountains on the western horizon like sleeping giants. The air is still and quiet, fostering an illusion of the savannah falling asleep to lullabies of birdsong. The reality is that predators are rousing for a night of hunting, and their prey are alert and afraid.
Our guide is Wian van Zyl, a young Afrikaner whose previous day job was monitoring rhinos in KwaZulu-Natal. This had its lively moments, notably being pursued on a scrambler motorbike by lions and elephant, and being knocked off one by a charging rhino. “I jumped off and ran to hide behind a tree, and luckily the rhino went for the bike. He smashed it to pieces in minutes.”
When asked, Wian describes how poachers disable a rhino with a single shot, then hack off its horn with machetes and axes, often while the animal is still alive. “Sometimes half the face goes with the horn. I hate to think of what the animals are going through in their last moments. You have a mix of emotions, you feel sad, you feel angry, you feel confused.”
An unremitting slaughter of rhinos continues throughout southern Africa, all for quack Asian medicine. Powdered horn is being traded by international gangs for $6,000 per kilo, and with horns weighing an average of five kilos, this makes it the world’s most valuable commodity. In fact it is made of keratin, the same substance as human hair and fingernails, which has no proven medicinal benefits.
Guests at Greenfire Lodge are not given keys to their chalets, because security is not a problem. Adrian the manager explains: “There are 1,500 lions out there, not to mention anti-poaching patrols. Being eaten alive or shot are fairly strong deterrents to crime.” I fall asleep peacefully to a murmur of animal night calls, grateful to prowling lions and Black Mambas.
Early next day a radio alert sends us careering over dirt tracks and across dried riverbeds like rally drivers. On the other side of a freight railway line, in full view, an adult male leopard is standing stock still. The notoriously secretive, elusive night hunter looks for all the world as if he is waiting to hitch a ride on a passing freight train. None comes, and he lopes away.
Minutes later we are cruising above the river bed barely a mile from our lodge, when we pass a large pool of water. Lazing beside it are four lions, the buffalo killers, stretching and yawning between banquets. Later a local Shangaan guide explains why they are unfazed by our presence. “They are used to us, even our voices. They know these vehicles can talk, and do not threaten them.”
Next we encounter a couple of spotted hyenas dozing in the shade of a thorn tree, much bigger than I had imagined, but I am beginning to lose hope of seeing rhino. Suddenly Wian stops the vehicle and jumps out to examine the ground. “Rhino tracks, keep your eyes peeled,” he says.
We do, and finally, as the sun begins its descent in a great crimson flare, we see them. The great hulking shapes of four white rhinos moving ponderously through the bush like a convoy of armoured vehicles.
Written by Gavin Bell of The Telegraph
Photos by: The Telegraph and Empowers Africa