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Black Mambas: Meet the women risking their lives to save rhinos from extinction
June 25, 2021
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Leitah Mkhabela, 28, has faced both and survived. As a member of the all-female anti-poaching unit Black Mambas, which receives most of its funding from UK charity Helping Rhinos, she risks her life every day while patrolling 50,000 acres of Balule Nature Reserve in South Africa’s Kruger National Park. The courageous work of Leitah and her 35 colleagues will be highlighted next week with the release of Endangered Species, a Hollywood blockbuster about a USA family who encounter a woman-only anti-poaching unit after their safari goes horribly wrong. The Black Mambas, who are the first line of defence at Kruger’s “Big Five” park, are exceptional because unlike most of the world’s rangers, they don’t carry guns.
And this means when they come under attack from man or beast – both happened to young mother Leitah – they can only run for their lives.
“I nearly died,” she says, with a shiver, recalling the morning in 2019 she and two teammates were on a dawn sweep, removing illegal snares placed by poachers.
When they spotted a male lion in the distance, the rangers retreated – straight into the path of a female lion with young.
They only realised their error when one of the cubs trotted between their legs.
“We went into shock,” Leitah says. “We saw the mother was coming and she was preparing to attack. She was ready to kill.”
Thankfully, members have lightning-quick responses honed through extensive training so they scrambled for higher ground while radioing for back-up.
“My boss thought a lion had got the radio phone because the roaring was so loud,” she says. “I told myself that if I survived this situation, I’m resigning.”
Leitah and her colleague managed to climb into a tree with seconds to spare. But the protective big cat paced below them until reinforcements arrived.
She refused counselling and decided she’d had enough. “I wanted to go home and be with my mum, dad and the rest of my family,” she says. “I wanted nothing to do with the bush.”
But once the shock receded after a few days she changed her mind.
“I thought I am the breadwinner,” she says. “Who is going to take care of my mother and who is going to be the voice for the animals?
I’ve got so many people who look up to me – I’m going back.”
This bravery and determination is often all that stands between some of the world’s most endangered animals and the ever closer prospect of extinction, because the situation in South Africa, home to 80 percent of the world’s rhinos, is “dire”, says Simon Jones, founder and chairman of Helping Rhinos, which donates 55 percent of the Mambas’ funding.
“Poaching has been the number one threat to rhinos for the last decade without a shadow of doubt,” he adds.
“At its height in 2014, we lost 1,215 rhinos in South Africa alone. If you go back to 2007, it was 13.”
The demand for black market rhino horn in China and Vietnam, used in traditional medicine, is exploited by criminals and bushmeat hunters who have eradicated 70 percent of Kruger National Park’s southern white population.
At the beginning of the 20th Century there were half a million rhinos in the world. Today there are just 27,000.
“The rhinos are the next major species facing extinction in the wild and the northern whites [only two females remain in Kenya] are a good example of how quickly it can go wrong,” says Simon.
Three out of five rhino species are critically endangered, while black rhino numbers have tumbled by 95 per cent over 50 years.
Simon hopes the film’s conservation message will stick in people’s minds as ecotourism slowly opens up again.
“It reminds people how fragile the natural world is, what a dangerous place it can be but also the importance of us needing to protect that,” he says.
The Black Mambas are, for now, the “boots on the ground” doing just that. They were founded in 2013 by Balule head warden, Craig Spencer, tocombat rising wildlife deaths.
Each morning, the women comb fence lines for damage caused by intruders, plugging gaps to stop animals escaping.
They remove snares that cause animal cruelty, rescue injured animals and press footprints into the dust because they want to be visible to the poachers.
“We want to show them that we are here and we mean business, and we don’t want you inside our reserve,” explains Leitah.
They also monitor camera traps and set up roadblocks to seize illegal firearms and stolen animals.
And their methods work. Balule’s poaching incidents have since dropped by 63 per cent yet, incredibly, not a single Black Mamba has been killed even though 871 rangers worldwide have died since 2009.
Leitah credits this to the group’s non- violent approach. “When you respond with a weapon, poachers know it’s about fighting so it’s shoot to kill,” she says.
“Even if they can shoot us, we’re not going to respond with a firearm so they are only fighting with themselves.
“We, as women, don’t want to fight with them because we cherish life and we don’t want to return to villages creating widows and orphans,” Leitah says.
“We don’t want to find angry kids who say, ‘I will avenge my father’s death against that Black Mamba’. Using education can help win this war, not by killing each other.”
But the no-violence stance did not prevent her nearly dying at the hands of poachers.
After a morning patrol revealed two dead buffalos, the park warden decided the poachers would probably return that night, so Leitah and two colleagues joined a small team waiting to sabotage their hunting.
But when the three poachers returned, by chance they drove towards the women hiding nearby, and captured them in their headlights.
Running was once again the only choice. Approaching an electrified fence, Leitah decided she would rather die climbing over it than be caught.
“I didn’t want to face the torture that those men would do to me, I’d rather have gotten killed by the electricity,” she says.
But when she reached the border, she was astonished by what she saw.
The elephants she puts her life on the line to protect every day had miraculously saved her.
They had trampled down the fence further along to reach the marula fruit on the other side.
“I touched it to find the electricity was not working so I shouted at the other girls, telling them that we could hide on the other side,” Leitah remembers.
The men searched the undergrowth, first on foot and then in their cars, and eventually gave up.
Consequently, Leitah says she is more scared of poachers than wild predators.
“If you encounter a poacher and look at each other face to face and he gets away, then he might come to your village and threaten you or your family,” she explains.
Her family worry about her but, like the community at large, they know the women are considered role models and “can do any job that men can do”.
So what qualities do they bring to the job? Leitah, a 2020 Ranger of the Year award winner, replies: “We don’t share information, we are so secretive.
“We don’t tell anyone where our rhinos are, we don’t say what time we go to work or when we are off duty.
“Sometimes, when men are drunk, they talk about those things but we are different because we are mothers so we protect the animals the way we protect our kids.”
Her meteoric ascent has been a joy for Simon to witness. “She was one of the first members I met and seeing her progress to what she is doing with them now is incredible,” he says.
The Black Mambas won a top UN environmental award in 2015, two years after his charity started funding them.
“I was determined that whoever we worked with on the ground would be influencing and protecting the species as a whole,” he says.
He plans to replicate their working model elsewhere but that is dependent on funding.
Fewer Balule rhinos were lost to poachers over the last year because of closed international borders.
But the pandemic created a funding black hole as tourism dried up overnight – safari fees typically include a conservation levy – and charities saw their fundraising plummet.
Some locals lost their jobs, although anti-poaching patrols have been protected so far.
The Black Mambas delivered food parcels to communities to prevent people from turning to bushmeat poaching.
The women are also teaching the next generation about conservation through their Bush Babies educational programme.
Leitah’s seven-year-old son loves bragging to his friends about his mum’s job.
But there is only so much the rangers can do.
Simon says politicians need to play their part too by imposing tougher sanctions on the Chinese government for failing to crack down on the rhino horn trade.
“These animals have been here for 15 million years – how can we let them become extinct on our watch, which is a real possibility if things don’t start turning around,” he adds.
Endangered Species is out on digital download from June 28 and on DVD from July 5. Visit helpingrhinos.org for more on the threats to rhinos and how you can help.