South African anti-poaching unit Champions of the Earth

8 September 2015

The South African Black Mamba anti-poaching unit, a ranger group mostly made up of women, has been named one of the winners of the United Nation’s top environmental accolade, the Champions of the Earth award.

With this award, made in the Inspiration and Action category, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is recognising the rapid and impressive impact the Black Mamba unit has made in combatting poaching, as well as the courage that is needed in the anti-poaching fight.

“Community-led initiatives are crucial to combatting the illegal wildlife trade and the Black Mambas highlight the importance and effectiveness of local knowledge and commitment,” said UNEP executive director Achim Steiner. “With every rhino saved the Black Mambas demonstrate that action on a local level is critical to achieving global sustainability and equity.”

Poachers better watch out

“I am not afraid; I know what I am doing and I know why I am doing it,” said Black Mamba member Leitah Mkhabela. “If you see the poachers, you tell them not to try; tell them we are here and it is they who are in danger.

“Animals deserve to live; they have a right to live. Do your part. When demand ends, the killing will end. Say yes to life. Say no to illegal rhino horn and elephant ivory.”

Officially known as the Black Mambas Anti-Poaching Unit of Transfrontier Africa, the women protect the Olifants West Nature Reserve. It forms part of the Balule Nature Reserve, near Kruger National Park.

For three weeks at a time, the rangers patrol the park – walking up to 20km a day, checking its fences and seeking out poachers, their trails, camps and snares. They know their ground so well that even a moved stone alerts them to poachers.

Black MambaThe Black Mamba anti-poaching unit patrols areas on foot to curb poaching. (Image: Black Mamba Facebook)

Involving the community

The rangers also work with communities around the reserve to help identify potential poachers, and do what they can to discourage them. One ranger specifically works with children in the region, seeking to connect them with the parks’ wildlife, soil and water.

In addition, the Black Mambas contribute to the discussion in the community about the connection between money, criminal gangs and poaching. They understand how the extreme poverty surrounding the parks and the demand from Asia combine to produce the surge in poaching.

“Their difficult, intense and dangerous work both within and outside the park fundamentally undermines the international poaching syndicates that threaten to wipe out populations of rhino and elephant in the wild,” says the UNEP.

Recognition for good work

Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa congratulated the group for the award.

“The Black Mambas are a shining example of the promise of government, the private sector and communities to eradicating rhino poaching in South Africa,” she said. “I, and all South Africans, salute these young women who have shown dedication and commitment to the conservation of our natural world.”

The award will be presented in New York on 27 September. It will be the second honour for the Black Mambas this year. On 27 July, the unit won the Best Conservation Practitioner category in the annual Rhino Conservation Awards. Those awards are hosted by the Department of Environmental Affairs and the Game Rangers Association of Africa.

Success stories

The Black Mamba Anti-Poaching Unit is one of 20 such teams, comprising 1 355 environmental monitors, in parks across South Africa.

It was established in 2013 to protect the Olifants West region of the Balule Nature Reserve. Since the rangers have been deployed at the game reserve, only four rhino have been poached.

The unit has helped to arrest six poachers, reduced snaring by poachers of other wildlife by 76% and removed over 1 000 snares, as well as destroyed five poachers’ camps and two bush meat kitchens.

Champions of the Earth

The annual Champions of the Earth awards are the highest environmental accolade that the UN can confer upon individuals and organisations. To date, the Champions of the Earth have recognised 67 laureates in the categories of policy, science, business and civil society.

Winners include a range of people, from leaders of nations to grassroots activists. “They were all visionaries whose leadership and actions drive the world ever closer to its aspirations of environmental sustainability and a life of dignity for all,” explains the UNEP.

SAinfo reporter