Earth & Conservation

The Women Who Fight Rhino Poachers Without Weapons

The Black Mambas are an all-female anti-poaching unit that protect the wildlife of South Africa's Kruger National Park.

A group of women in South Africa are more effective at protecting wildlife in Kruger National Park than drones or thermal optics. They're known as the Black Mambas, and they fight off rhino poachers without any weapons at all.

The goal of the Mambas is to make Kruger National Park one of the most uncomfortable places to poach rhinos. Once they detect poachers in the area, they swoop in and chase them off in what's called a "disrupt," preventing them from getting close to the rhino they're after.

"They say it's hard for a woman to do that kind of job, that's a man's job," Leitah Mkhabela, one of the Black Mambas, told Seeker. "So I was happy about it, I proved them wrong."

The park saw a need for the Black Mambas after they lost 19 rhinos in just a few months. "The Black Mamba Anti-Poaching Unit was first founded in 2013," Amy Clark, Director of Transfrontier Africa, told Seeker. "Snaring dropped 97 percent in the first year in this region. The first 13 months of operation we didn't lose a single rhino throughout the reserve; even till today, 2016, it's dropped by 56 percent."

WATCH: How an Unarmed Group of Women Fight Poachers in Africa

Considering the Black Mambas are working on a reserve with thousands of wild animals, the training they go through is pretty rigorous. During a four week training period, they have to learn arrest procedures, how to spot tracks and how to search vehicles. One of those weeks is devoted entirely to dealing with an elephant or lion encounter while on patrol. When the four weeks are up, the women must then complete a two week paramilitary course.

For Mkhabela, the rigorous training is one of the reasons she joined the Mambas. The group's success has helped redefine gender roles in their community, where jobs for women are sometimes limited. "This job teaches me how to take care of money, it teaches me how to behave when a woman is working for herself," Mkhabela told Seeker. "It made me grow up. A lot of ways this job has changed me," she added.

Self-confidence is perhaps the most valuable lessons the Mambas learn from the group. "All the Mambas are between the ages of 20 and 30 and then they're all from the local communities and villages surrounding Balule Nature Reserve," Clark told Seeker. "The majority of them, when they first arrived, were very shy and didn't really sort of speak out much. After the time that they've spent with us and doing the job, their confidence levels have absolutely skyrocketed," she said.

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The group even visits classrooms where they teach kids about what they do in the field. Lewyn Maefala is the Environmental Education Officer for the Black Mambas and told Seeker that because young kids are often afraid of animals, part of her curriculum focuses on how the animals need our help. In classrooms she often says, "They [the animals] have a very important job and we need you guys to help us to save them."

Lewyn described one moment that was particularly rewarding for her as an educator with the Mambas, "There was one child, she was the one who said in front of everyone, 'When I grow up, I want to be like you because you teach us to look after our environment."