Women in SA continue to lead the fight to save our natural wonderlands 

A dominantly female anti-poaching unit is winning the hearts of SA and the world for their fight against rhino poaching. Women should be empowered – not abused – for them to reach their full potential, writes THEMBANI MAKATA

“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.This was 22 year-old Leitah Mkhabela when she was speaking to the Telegraph newspaper on the dangers the nearly all-female anti-poaching squad – The Black Mamba Anti-Poaching Unit – faces everyday as they try to stop the scourge.

These women risk their lives in the duty of their country. We owe it to them and other women to deal with the Mdu Mananas of the world and their ilk with the full might of the law and the courts.

These women epitomize the strength and courage upon which households and communities are built, the bedrock of society.

Their worth lies in their actions and their gender does nor prescribe how they are defined.

It is worthwhile to repeat what their website says about them: “The objectives of the Black Mamba project are not only the protection of rhinos through boots on the ground but also through being a role model in their communities. These 32 young women and two men want their communities to understand that the benefits are greater through rhino conservation rather than poaching, addressing the social and moral decay that is a product of the rhino poaching within their communities. They are concerned for their children’s sake as the false economy has brought loose morals and narcotics into their communities.”

The Unit is the first majority female anti-poaching unit in South Africa and was founded in 2013 by Transfrontier Africa NPC, to protect the Olifants West Region of Balule Nature Reserve. 

Within the first year of operation the Black Mambas were invited to expand into other regions and now protect all boundaries of the 52,000ha Balule Nature Reserve, part of the Greater Kruger National Park.
“Our teams work to the concept of the “Broken Window” philosophy, striving to make our area of influence the most undesirable, most difficult and least profitable place to poach any species. With a passion for wildlife and rhino conservation, these women are the voice in the community through their conservation work.”
Recently, Minister of Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa in her closing address at the Global Youth in Biodiversity Network Workshop said that we have young women walking the talk – in 2015 the all-women Black Mambas Anti-poaching Unit was awarded the United Nations’ top accolade – the Champions of the Earth Award – for the work they do to combat wildlife crime.

“These young women are a shining example of the promise of government, the private sector and communities to eradicating rhino poaching in South Africa.

“The Black Mambas comprises young women who come from communities close to the Balule Game Reserve and the Kruger National Park. The unit not only focuses on conducting anti-poaching operations, but also educates communities in the area on the benefits of conservation and rhino protection,” the Minister said.

The roles these women play in their communities cannot be over-emphasized. They are the teachers of future generations in the importance of nature conservation and its importance to South Africa.

Government recognition through words and action is crucial in continuing this initiative aimed at real change in the field of nature conservation and in enhancing people’s understanding of the harm caused by poaching. 

The anti-poaching unit, among others, were recently lauded for their work by John Scanlon, Secretary-General of the Secretariat of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

“Honest and hardworking park rangers devote their lives to protecting our natural resources and cultural heritage and, in some areas, these brave men and women regularly encounter well-resourced groups of poachers, equipped with high caliber weapons, who do not hesitate to use violence or threats of violence against them,” said Scanlon.

The mambas have also garnered international attention with a documentary on their work – The Rhino Guardians – produced by Dan Sadgrove.

“Breaking free from the patriarchal community they hail from, they are doing a job previously done only by men. They patrol the Balule Game Reserve unarmed. They confront poachers non-violently. They are committed to eliminate illegal poaching through education and conservation.”

In a 2015 piece, Time magazine described the unit in the following way: “Since it was first created in 2013, South Africa’s Black Mambas Anti-Poaching Unit has arrested six poachers, shut down five poacher camps, and reduced snaring (the practice of baiting and trapping animals) by 76% in the Balule Private Game Reserve. It will come as little surprise, therefore, that the 26-member ranger unit, comprised mainly of women, has been honored by the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) with its highest environmental prize — the Champions of the Earth Award.” 

The Black Mambas can play a crucial role in determining the definition or redefining of the African girl child through their example.

But we let them down each time we allow an act of violence to be perpetrated against a woman or a girl in this country or fail to act swiftly and justly against those men who perpetrate violence against them. The scourge must be stopped. We owe it to all of us.

Thembani Makata is National Secretary General of the South African Students Congress (SASCO) and Deputy Secretary General of the South African Youth Council

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