THE MOON HAD JUST CLEARED THE HORIZON OVER SOUTH Africa’s Balule Nature Reserve one night in late September when 22-year-old Leitah Mkhabele heard the sound of poachers crashing through the underbrush. They must have clipped a hole in the fence, thought Mkhabele, as she and her patrolling partner, 24-year-old Nkateko Mzimba, crept closer. Mzimba radioed to base for backup. The noise alerted the men, who turned in their direction. Mkhabele raised her weapon—a canister of pepper spray—then paused. In the dark, she couldn’t tell what was slung over the first man’s shoulder. Was it a gun, or a coil of wire to set a snare? She did a quick calculation. If it was a gun, she might be shot before the poacher got within range of her pepper spray. So she ran.
The poachers fled before backup arrived. Mkhabele and Mzimba were frustrated that the trespassers had gotten away, but to their bosses, they did exactly what they were supposed to: they proved that the Black Mambas, a nearly all-women antipoaching unit created to protect the reserve’s rhinos, could keep poachers out of the park. Still, says Mkhabele, “It would have felt good to shoot the guys who keep trying to kill our rhinos.”
The Black Mambas represent one of the newest attempts to stem a poaching epidemic that threatens to cause the extinction of wild rhinos within a generation. By deploying women as scouts instead of men with guns, Balule warden and Black Mambas founder Craig Spencer has changed the rules in the ongoing war between commercial poachers and wildlife protectors.
It’s a war conservationists are losing. Of the estimated 28,000 rhinos left in the wild, approximately 80% are in South Africa—and they’re far from safe. At least 1,215 rhinos were killed by poachers in South Africa last year, up from 13 in 2007. Rising incomes in Vietnam and China are driving demand for rhino horn, which, despite scientific research to the contrary, is believed to cure ailments from hangovers to cancer. With a street value of more than $65,000 a kilogram in Asia, the illegal trade in rhino horn has attracted international criminal syndicates wielding a smuggling infrastructure that rivals drug cartels’. At the current rate, South Africa will see more rhinos killed for their horns than born within the next few years. Rhinos, says Mkhabele, “deserve to survive. They shouldn’t be killed for something that is not true.”
In order to stem the carnage, South African conservationists and law-enforcement bodies have deployed heavily armed guards, surveillance planes, drones, canine units, tracking devices and even horn-mounted spy cameras. Private game-reserve operators have shaved down their rhinoceroses’ horns to make them less attractive targets. (Like fingernails and horse hooves, rhino horn can be cut in a painless
‘They say women can’t work in the bush. So I am very proud of us here, because we are working in the bush. Without guns, as women. It means we are strong.’
nkateko mzimba, 24-year-old member of the Black Mambas
a shot against those guys that night. They would have been hopelessly slaughtered.” Not only are they challenging poachers, they are taking on stereotypes, says Mzimba. “They say women can’t work in the bush. So I am very proud of us here, because we are working in the bush. Without guns, as women. It means we are strong.”
Their most important role, how-
< Black Mambas on patrol at the Balule Nature Reserve in northern South Africa
ever, isn’t in the reserve, but in teaching the value of wildlife to residents of the impoverished townships surrounding Balule and Kruger National Park where many poachers originate. Many locals see wildlife sanctuaries as the preserve of white and wealthy tourists. They resent the fact that they cannot graze their cattle in the reserves, or hunt game freely like their forebears did.
The Black Mambas, who were recruited from the same neighborhoods, try to counter that perception. Spencer chose to hire women because he thought they would be better at bringing the conservation message home. Belinda Mzimba, who joined the Mambas with her cousin Nkateko Mzimba, makes a point of telling students about South Africa’s “Big Five”—the lions, elephants, rhinos, buffalos and leopards without which no safari is complete. “I tell them, ‘When you grow up, you don’t need to go to poaching, because the Big Five animals will earn the money.’” Jobs come from tourism, she explains, and without the Big Five, the tourists won’t come. “You can’t be a tour guide, a field guide, if there is no nature left.”
spencer says the Mambas have played a significant role in reducing snare traps and keeping poachers from setting up camp in the privately run reserve. But it is uncertain that their successes can be tailored to fit other areas. Rhinos may be safe in Bal- ule’s 400 sq km, but once they cross the open border into Kruger, with its 19,500 sq km of unfenced savanna, they are far more vulnerable. To replicate the Mambas’ successes across an area that is roughly the size of Israel would require thousands of recruits. As it is, Spencer spends about $20,000 a month on security just for Balule, and he’s still lost five rhinos in the past two years.
Rhino-conservation projects working with higher-tech solutions are coming up against similar financial barriers. The antipoaching organization Protect has developed a device that combines heart-rate monitors, GPS tracking devices and tiny video cameras that can be embedded in a rhino’s horn. If a rhi
no’s heartbeat spikes or goes flat, rangers know where to send a team. “All these antipoaching units do a phenomenal job,” says Protect director Steve Piper. “The trouble is that they have to patrol vast areas.” But in order to be effective, every adult rhino would have to wear a device. Even if costs come down low enough to make that possible (working prototypes run in the thousands of dollars), monitoring infrastructure is likely to be beyond most nations’ capacity^
But what if more money were available for conservation? When the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species convenes in Johannesburg next year, South Africa is expected to endorse a one-off lifting of the 38-year-old ban against trade in rhino horns so that it can sell a government stockpile worth more than $1.36 billion and invest the funds in rhino protection. Rhino breeders want to take it a step further, legalizing global trade so they can farm rhinos for the horns, like sheep for their wool. They argue that by regulating trade in rhino horn, they can meet Asia’s demand, undercut the poaching syndicates and cover the costs of rhino security.
For some conservationists, it’s a persuasive argument, albeit one borne from failure. But if we allow the industrial farming of a wild animal, how much has really been achieved, asks ecologist Jason Gilchrist at Edinburgh’s Napier University. “Why bother saving the rhino if it isn’t wild anymore?”
For Mkhabele, the solution has to start with the men who earn a pittance risking their lives to deliver horns to traffickers. Every poacher she questions says he’s doing it out of desperation. “They won’t stop unless they run out,” says Mkhabele. “After rhinos, they will go for the elephants. After the elephants, they will go for other things.” In Asia, there is a big market for lion bone. Rumors are swirling that giraffe parts can cure AIDS. “There will always be a reason to poach, until we make people understand that without our animals, South Africa is nothing.” That’s where the Black Mambas come in. They may not be able to stop poachers with pepper spray alone. But they can stop them with education.