These Badass Women Are Taking on Poachers—and Winning

The all-female Black Mambas guard South Africa’s most precious wildlife with their lives.

Members of the all-female Black Mamba Anti-Poaching Unit perform a routine patrol through a wildlife reserve in South Africa's Limpopo province.

This story is part of Women of Impact, a National Geographic project centered around women breaking barriers in their fields, changing their communities, and inspiring action. Join the conversation in our Facebook group.

It's 6:40 a.m. when I step into a white jeep inside Balule Private Game Reserve, a protected wildlife area spanning nearly 100,000 acres on the western border of South Africa’s world-famous Kruger National Park. Behind the wheel is Shadu Hlangwana, with Felicia Mogahane in the passenger's seat and Carol Khosa in the back with me.

Having lost my luggage in transport, I'm wearing jeans with a beige fleece and camouflage cap from the Pondoro Game Lodge, the reserve property that is my home for the next two nights. I feel ill-prepared next to their fatigues. My magenta lipstick doesn't help, but it is what breaks the ice.

“Are you talking about my lipstick?” I ask, eyeing Hlangwana's red nails on the wheel and Mogahane's pearl earrings. Mogahane looks over her shoulder and reveals a sheepish, gap-toothed grin. For the last hour, “lipstick” was the only English word spoken outside their native tongue, Tsonga. This segues to a conversation about beauty while we cruise three miles per hour along an electric fence at Olifants West Gate.

MEET THE WORLD’S FIRST ALL-FEMALE ANTI-POACHING TEAM

These three 20-something women may be shy and protective, but they are guarding more than themselves here. They are the Black Mambas, the world's first all-female anti-poaching unit, and, together with 30 other local women, they are saving South Africa's endangered rhinos and elephants.

Visiting the Mambas

Few barriers separate Balule, founded in the early 1990s, from Greater Kruger National Park, with some exceptions designed to keep animals from crossing highways, and more importantly, keep poachers and bushmeat hunters out. Each month, every Black Mamba spends 21 days straight patrolling Balule by foot or jeep—four hours at dawn and four hours at dusk—in search of snares, human tracks, sounds of gunshots, and other suspicious activity. While they are not making arrests, they do call in backup, or trained special forces, to seize troublemakers.

A giraffe roams through the wildlife reserve behind a Black Mambas member. The team routinely patrols through the park to monitor boundaries and look for signs of poachers.

The award-winning nonprofit, which launched in 2013, has significantly reduced incidents of snaring and poaching by as much as 76 percent, accordings to their website. Their success has garnered global attention, including interest from Extraordinary Journeys, a luxury travel agency that specializes in safaris and supports community, conservation, and sustainability initiatives. The company recently partnered with Pondoro to offer guests exclusive tours with the Mambas twice a week, donating all profits to the program. Guest tours feature classroom presentations, where you learn how the Mambas are making a difference. My personal tour, however, offers a unique inside look.

An Important Presence

This morning, the Mambas' mission is to report abnormalities, such as signs of fence tampering. We stop for Mogahane, an original Mamba and mother of two, to check the shock box. I follow her to study the voltage but am too nervous to focus. For all I know, a lion or leopard may be watching us. After all, we're in Big Five territory without any protection.

That's right, the Black Mambas patrol unarmed.

“I've been doing this for 24 years and have never had to raise a weapon to a wild animal,” Craig Spencer, the Black Mambas founder and head warden at Balule Nature Reserve, tells me later. “The poachers would have to consider defending themselves against these women. Creating orphans and widows is not the answer to this problem. You can’t shoot this problem away. Early detection is their key role.”

Protected rhinos roam through an enclosed space on the Khaya Ndlovu Lodge near Kruger National Park.

With this in mind, Spencer looked to the British police, or “bobbies on the beat” as he calls them, to establish a model for the Mambas. “They are unarmed, courteous, well-dressed, and eloquent. They have a presence, [which functions as] crime prevention. That's the idea: Saturate the landscape, make them visible wearing badges, practice early detection, and then call in an armed response.”

Wildlife Run-Ins

Back in the jeep, Mogahane relays stats to Khosa, who radios headquarters. My anxiety about leaving the jeep is validated when Khosa reveals a terrifying incident from March.

“I was patrolling with another Mamba [at 9 a.m.] when we were surrounded by eight lions,” says Khosa, the breadwinner of her family, which includes her two children, mother, and five siblings. “We tried to radio it in, but there's no way someone would have arrived in time. One of the land owners saw us and came to the rescue.”

Hlangwana, the newest Mamba as of this year, chimes in about her own run-in a few nights ago. “I switched on the headlights [at 7:30 pm] and saw two elephants. The first one passed, but the second stopped and started charging aggressively toward us. I was scared and had to act fast,” says Hlangwana, who has one child.

Black Mamba members prepare for night patrols through South Africa's Balule Nature Reserve.

“We're lucky that Shadu stayed calm enough to turn the car away from the elephant,” Mogahane says.

Serious Training and Deep Motivation

What the Mambas lack in weapons, they make up in skill, teamwork, and gumption. The three months of required training for entry include physical exercise, like running around three miles daily, and classroom work, such as learning surveillance practices, compliance techniques, and how to use walkie-talkies. The last month is the most rigorous, focusing on survival tactics in the bush, including building shelter and functioning without food or water.

The extensive training is part of why, in four years, there have been no casualties on the job, despite regularly facing serious peril. Sure, it's a dangerous job, but the work experience is invaluable—providing hope for a better future while fulfilling many Mambas’ passion for wilderness.

What we are doing is important and amazing. They say it’s a man’s job, but we are doing it.
Felicia MogahaneBlack Mamba

“I’ve loved nature—the trees, animals, birds, all of it—since I was young,” Khosa says. Mogahane adds, “If I could go back to school, I would study conservation. What we are doing is important and amazing. They say it’s a man’s job, but we are doing it.”

There are female rangers in South Africa, but they’re rare. On top of combatting assumptions about their abilities, women are battling against systematic education exclusion and a struggling economy in South Africa, where unemployment reached nearly 28 percent in 2017.

“It's as much about conservation as poverty relief,” Spencer says. Partially funded by the government, the nonprofit offers women the opportunity to develop skills to help improve their immediate lives and future. Mambas starting out receive a wage of approximately 3,500 rand, or around U.S. $260, per month, which is the national minimum wage. Drivers, like Hlangwana, and sergeants, like Mogahane, earn slightly more.

“Most started because they needed a job, but now, it has become a source of dignity to be a Black Mamba,” Spencer says. “They get given a break for the first time in their lives.”

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Poachers killed this black rhinocerous for its horn with high-caliber bullets at a water hole in South Africa’s Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park. They entered the park illegally, likely from a nearby village, and are thought to have used a silenced hunting rifle. Black rhinos number only about 5,000 today.

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A four-man antipoaching team permanently guards the last remaining male northern white rhino on Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya in July 2011.

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A security team member (displaying his “antipoaching unit” tattoo) holds a rhino’s horn at the ranch of John Hume—the world’s top rhino farmer—in Klerksdorp, South Africa. The horns of Hume’s 1,300 rhinos are trimmed every 20 months or so and grow back. He has been storing trimmed horns for years in hopes of a legalized trade, which he says will reduce poaching, a claim many conservationists reject. South Africa lifted its domestic ban on rhino horn just a few months ago.

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Veterinarian Johan Marais (left) prepares to try out a novel treatment—rubber bands used in human surgery—to close a gaping hole in this female rhino’s face made in May 2015 by poachers hacking out her horn. The rhino, named Hope, died more than a year later of a bacterial infection in her intestine.

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A game rancher near Port Elizabeth who couldn’t afford the high cost of protecting his rhinos from poachers sold this one to a more secure operation. The rhino, blindfolded and wearing earplugs to calm it, will be sedated and accompanied by a veterinarian during the 20-hour truck journey to its new home.

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Lulah’s mother was killed by poachers in Kruger National Park. She now lives at Care for Wild Africa, a sanctuary specializing in rhinos. Staff member Dorota Ladosz lives with her full-time and comforts her after surgery to repair wounds inflicted by hyenas before her rescue.

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On Hume’s ranch, a team led by veterinarian Michelle Otto treats an abscess on a male rhino bought from another property owner. Otto speculates that when this animal’s horn was removed, his owner had cut dangerously low, causing an abscess to form.

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These rhinos at a feeding site on Hume’s ranch have recently had their horns trimmed. Unlike elephant ivory, rhino horn grows back when cut properly. He estimates that he has five tons in storage, which could bring him some $45 million. Hume held the first rhino horn auction in South Africa in years in August.

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These white rhinos crossed from Kruger into Sabie Game Park in Mozambique, where 29 white rhinos and two black rhinos were counted in 2015. Rhinos that enter Mozambique are holding their own thanks to efforts to crack down on poachers—but they remain at very high risk.

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Sudan was transferred along with three other northern whites from a zoo in the Czech Republic in 2009. The rhinos, which had not produced offspring in captivity, were brought to the wild in a last-ditch effort to breed them back from the brink of extinction.

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A white rhino calf romps with a juvenile in a game park holding pen in South Africa's KwaZulu-Natal Province.

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An eight-pound rhino horn like this can reap several hundred thousand dollars on the black market. In Asia, some mistakenly believe rhino horn has medicinal properties. It is actually made from keratin, the same material as fingernails and hair.

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A white rhino cow (at left) grazes with a bull that has become her companion after a poaching attack in KwaZulu-Natal Province, South Africa. Using a helicopter, a gang tracked her and her four-week-old calf, shot her with a tranquilizer dart, and cut off her horns with a chain saw. Rangers found her a week later, searching for her calf, which had died, probably of starvation and dehydration.

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Game scouts found this black rhino bull wandering Zimbabwe's Savé Valley Conservancy after poachers shot it several times and hacked off both its horns. Veterinarians had to euthanize the animal because its shattered shoulder couldn't support its weight.

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An anesthetized white rhino cow is left to wake up in a field after a dehorning procedure to deter poachers. Poachers killed a reported 1,054 rhinos in South Africa in 2016.

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Some critics of dehorning say it leaves the animals unprotected against natural predators. Advocates argue that the absence of horns deters poachers and reduces the number of rhinos that die of wounds from fights over territory and mates. "An adult rhino packs such an awesome punch, even with a stub of a horn," Hume says. "A lion is unlikely to tangle with one, horn or no horn."

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A decomposing rhino with its horns cut off lies where it was strangled in a poacher's wire snare on a private game reserve not far from Kruger National Park in South Africa. Rangers staked out the site, but when the poacher didn't return, reserve officials removed the horns.

Tap images for captions

Nick Koornhoff, a member of the Parliament of South Africa and chairman of Balule’s Olifants West Nature Reserve, agrees: “I see this extended public works program as a fantastic stepping stone. These women, who had no opportunity, are now able to seek better employment in the future. They are heroes in their communities.”

The Mamba’s Fearless Leader

Before introducing himself, Spencer, a 40-something South African of English descent, paces at headquarters around this morning's jeep—one of the group’s 13. His tanned bare chest, khaki shorts, and boots look the part, but the Sherlock-Holmes-esque pipe is next level.

As he furiously inspects a new dent, he grumbles about how the damage should have been reported. He walks over to the driver's side, pulls the key from the ignition, and chucks it over a brick wall. The Mambas are a short walk down the dirt road in their wooden shacks, where they are doing laundry and preparing lunch. This spectacle is just for me, I guess. After he puts on a shirt and shakes my hand, he explains his actions.

Before the Black Mambas, we were tripping over rhino carcasses.
Craig SpencerBlack Mamba Founder

“I do see myself as a bit of a father figure to them, which is why I'm hard. I call it tough love. I love every single one of them desperately and want the very best for them,” he says. “Best” includes safe, fully functioning vehicles, which is the only armor they have while on patrol. Like a proud papa, he continues to sing their praises.

“Before the Black Mambas, we were tripping over rhino carcasses,” he says, using the edge of my business card to clean his nails. “This year, we've seen eight dead rhinos, which is way too many.” That's not bad considering that on average 3.5 rhinos are being shot daily in South Africa, home to 70 percent of the world’s remaining 29,500 white rhinos. One reason for the recent uptick: the sale of rhino horns just became legal again.

“We're trying to save the rhinos by creating a totally different set of values within the community. These women are very proud to wear the uniform. They are role models. I want to see them grow, build houses, send their children to school,” says Spencer, who is skeptical about any attempts to franchise the program.

“First, we need to capture the formula. You can't just duplicate this model. There are certain variables that make it work here that may not work elsewhere,” Spencer says. “Also, the management style has to be firm and fair. And you must care about these women.”

Spencer claims to receive no compensation for this nonprofit work and admits, “I often wonder if I need the Mambas or they need me? I've lost my heart and soul to them. They are my reason for sticking around. It used to be the elephants and the rhinos, but now, it's these women.”

Koornhoff suspects Spencer is the secret ingredient: “What he did with the Black Mambas has never been done before.”

Cristina Goyanes is a travel, fitness, and lifestyle writer based out of New York City. Follow her on Twitter @GoGoGoyanes and on Instagram @cristinagoyanes. 

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