Tsakane Nxumalo is a sergeant in the Black Mambas, South Africa's first all-women anti-poaching team.
Who are the Black Mambas?
We are an all-women anti-poaching unit in Olifants West Nature Reserve, part of the Greater Kruger National Park. Our job involves protecting wildlife such as rhinos, but also animals such as impalas, which are caught for bushmeat, by patrolling the fences, tracking poachers and searching the bush for snares (wire traps that can catch animals around the neck or foot). We work for 21 days, and then take ten days off when we can return to our families.
Do you carry guns?
We don’t carry guns — if we find a poacher, we’re trained to call for back-up. I think this is a good approach, because we’re trying to conserve wildlife, not take human lives. Many of us are from the villages where the poachers come from and we don’t want children to lose their fathers. Most of the poachers are only coming into the parks to try to feed their kids. We want to be role models, to show that there are ways to benefit from the parks without poaching. It can be scary being unarmed when faced with animals — once while on patrol I had lions on one side and buffaloes on the other — but we’re trained to step back, support one another and use our brains.
Why are the Black Mambas all women?
We have a lot of good qualities as women — I think we know how to nurture and take care of things. I think this industry has typically been a man’s world, but we’re doing this to show that a woman doesn’t have to be in the kitchen. At first, we got a lot of negative reactions, particularly from men who would put us down. But we had to stop listening to the noise and show them that we can do what men do and we can be strong.
Why is this kind of work important?
Firstly, for people to visit to see the animals — it improves our economy. But it’s also for our children — I don’t want my future children to read about rhinos in a book; I want them to see rhinos and the other animals for themselves.
How successful have the Black Mambas been?
I think we’ve been very successful. When we started, we would go out and find 70 to 80 snares in a day. Now we find maybe one if we’re lucky. By being visible, I think we’ve made a difference. The wildlife has bounced back.
What changed over the Covid-19 pandemic?
A lot of things changed. Many people working in the safari lodges lost their jobs because tourists couldn’t come and that was a threat to our work — these people knew the parks well and were at risk of turning to poaching. You couldn’t blame them — they were fending for their families.
We started a programme of delivering food parcels in the communities around the park, so that they wouldn’t be tempted. We also went into schools to teach children how to farm and grow their own food. Now things are slowly recovering, so the tourists have come back and people have returned to their jobs.
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