Our phones are hot in our hands beneath the mid-morning sun. Qolile is showing me a photo of her three-year-old son, Renold. He looks sweet. I show Qolile a picture of my son, Jacob. She nods approvingly. Of course, I’ve shared pictures on my mobile with many other women – it’s an ordinary, everyday sort of a thing to do – but today is different.
Qolile and I aren’t outside the school gates; we’re in the Balule Nature Reserve, a 400km2 protected wildlife area on the western boundary of the Greater Kruger National Park in South Africa. Dressed head-to-toe in dark-green camouflage, with a large military-style canvas badge stitched onto her sleeve, Qolile is a Black Mamba – one of 36 members of the first, majority-female anti-poaching unit in the world.
I’ve joined Qolile and fellow Black Mamba Collen on morning foot patrol. Since sunrise, they’ve been checking one of the Reserve’s few electric fences that separates Balule from the outside world. The efficacy of fences like this is vital. “We need them to be operational,” says Qolile. “We have many animals here. Of course, the Big Five – rhinos, elephants, buffalo, leopards and lions. But hyenas, giraffes, hippos, pangolins and many snakes are here, too. We don’t want any of them dying on the roads or being killed by poachers.”
Certainly, Balule is home to Africa’s most iconic creatures, but it’s also where some of the planet’s most endangered animals roam freely, too. Unfortunately, many of these animals are targets for poachers, either for selling as bushmeat or for trafficking in the illegal wildlife trade, but it’s rhinos – or rather, their horns – that top the most-wanted lists of the continent’s most deadly poachers.
So, why rhino horns? In one word: money. Worth more than their weight in gold, rhino horns are one of the most lucrative animal parts traded on the black market. Despite its astronomical price tag, the market for rhino horn is booming, especially in Asian countries like China and Vietnam. Revered as a traditional medicine, powdered rhino horn is mistakenly thought to treat a whole host of maladies – from curing terminal cancer to taking the edge off a hangover.
Since 2008, the demand for rhino has been unrelenting. As a consequence, its price has skyrocketed, driving unprecedented levels of poaching, which have in turn caused rhino populations in South Africa – where most of the world’s rhinos are found – to plummet. Of the 8,000 rhinos killed by poachers from 2008 to 2018, more than half were slaughtered in Kruger and the surrounding reserves, including Balule. Although rhino numbers in South Africa have slowly started to recover, Kruger and its surrounds remain a magnet, not just for domestic poachers, but also for carefully orchestrated criminal gangs, fully equipped with AK47s, rifles, machetes and chainsaws, who have moved into the area from neighbouring Mozambique and Zimbabwe. Rhinos here are under constant threat and remain firmly on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
Which is why the boots-on-the-ground, frontline presence of the Black Mambas is vital for the future survival of the area’s rhinos. “On patrol, we do much more than inspect fences,” says Qolile. “We save rhinos from poachers before they strike.” As we walk, Collen explains: “We know this land like the back of our hands. Like detectives, we look and we listen. We are trained to notice signs that poachers are around. We gather intelligence and we pass it on.”
Though unarmed, the Black Mambas are the ears and eyes of Balule’s armed tactical response unit, many of whom are ex-soldiers. When a Black Mamba comes across anything suspicious, it’s reported – via an encrypted smartphone app – to the Reserve’s communications office. Their surveillance is then quickly followed up and dealt with. If poachers or dangerous animals are encountered, the app is used to call for immediate back-up.
To date, this soft approach is paying off. Since the unit was set up in 2013, by Craig Spencer, head warden at Balule, and Amy Clark of Transfrontier Africa, a non-profit conservation organisation, fewer rhinos have lost their lives in the hands of poachers. More than 1,500 deadly snares have been detected and record numbers of poachers’ camps have been destroyed. Overall, the number of snaring and poaching incidents in Balule has fallen by 76 per cent. The successes of the Black Mambas have filled newspaper and magazine columns worldwide, and, in 2015, they received the United Nation’s highest possible environmental accolade – the prestigious Champions of the Earth award.
As we tackle a steep hill, I fall behind Qolile and Collen. Both are constantly looking, searching to the left, to the right, examining the sky above and the ground below. Both have eagle-eyes, a result of their expert training, spending months in the bush learning how to track both animals and poachers. Qolile stops and points out the distinctive prints of lion paws in the soft soil of the path. I can clearly make out the indents of the lion’s four toes that form a halo around the ball of the big cat’s foot.
“These prints are fresh,” says Collen in hushed tones. “A lion was here, perhaps, just a few hours before us.” While Collen speaks, Qolile spots something else. An empty tortoise shell. She picks it up and passes her hand over it gently, as if stroking the face of a small child. It’s the shell of a leopard tortoise. The spots on its shell, in shades of mottled amber and burned-brown sugar, are perfectly delineated from each other, clearly marked as if drawn on in black kohl. I immediately see why this tortoise shares its name with the leopard.
I learn it was likely the victim of a hungry honey badger. A hole in its shell indicates an entry point, the spot where the knife-sharp claw of a honey badger poked right through, killing the tortoise inside. Qolile places the shell tenderly on the verge, in the soft shade of a bush willow. Around the tree, the grass is tall and lush. It’s South Africa’s “green season” – that time when rain falls, temperatures rise and the bush becomes bright as polished emerald. Between trees in leaf and flower, bees buzz and birds like the woodland kingfisher, display their brightly coloured, jewel- like wings to attract a mate.
We walk on until we reach the gushing Olifants River, a tributary of the great Limpopo, where our morning patrol ends. “Goodness will pick us up in the Jeep,” Qolile tells me. We hear Goodness before we see her: the Jeep is noisy and, made in the 1970s, it’s pretty old, too. The passenger door doesn’t shut. I hold it closed and we head back to the Black Mambas’ compound. We pass staring elephants, sunshine bouncing off their huge silver-grey backs, and giraffes, necks held aloft, their little horns alert as they watch us go by. We swerve suddenly, to avoid hitting a dwarf mongoose. “All animals count, not just the big ones,” says Goodness, with a beatific smile on her face.
After 20 minutes or so, we arrive at the compound where some of the Black Mambas live. Small one-room dwellings, built from wood or brick, sit tightly next to each other and look out onto a communal cooking and eating area. A red towel hangs on a line, drying in the heat. Here and there, pretty wild flowers pop up through cracks in the ground, seeking light. I spy a pair of polished boots. They shine like jet. “Whoever owns these boots,” I say to Qolile, “must be very proud.’’ Qolile laughs, then replies. “Ha, yes! They belong to my sister, Mirren. She is very proud to be a Black Mamba. All of us women are. Few women work in anti-poaching. Many men said we would fail. But we have proved them wrong.”
Qolile is right. Women working in anti-poaching units are few and far between. Becoming a Black Mamba takes guts. As well as battling deeply ingrained sexism about what jobs women can and cannot do, many women in South Africa lack formal education and they compete for work in a struggling economy, where unemployment is at an 11-year high. Any woman who can break down such barriers in a country described by its own president as one of “the most unsafe places in the world to be a woman” is a brave and determined one – and one, more often than not, driven by the need to support her family.
Many of the Black Mambas, including Qolile and Mirren, who have five children between them, are the heads of their households. As the breadwinners. It’s up to them to provide for their children and other family members. “Knowing I can look after my son gives me such a good feeling,” says Qolile. “It was Mirren who inspired me and my other sister, Yenzekile, to become Black Mambas, to change our lives and make a difference.”
Qolile perfectly sums up the dual role of the Black Mambas. They’re not just guardians of the Balule’s wildlife, they’re role models, too. They show other women it’s possible to succeed in a man’s world and that this can be done without guns. Words and actions are their weapons. Away from the Reserve, Black Mambas work in their local communities and help them appreciate the benefits of protecting wildlife, to understand that living rhinos are more valuable than dead ones. In local schools, through their Bush Babies programme, the Mambas hold popular conservation classes where they inspire children to protect wildlife, rather than poach it.
“The Black Mambas’ approach to rhino conservation works,” says Simon Jones, founder and CEO of Helping Rhinos, a conservation charity committed to funding innovative projects protecting rhinos. “Absolutely, their presence on the front line is an excellent deterrent, but it’s the work they do in local schools and communities that underpins their success. Without communities on the side of rhinos, the war on poaching may never be won.”
Hours later, I’m at the beautiful Makanyi Lodge, where I’m staying in a neighbouring reserve. Dusks falls and I think of Qolile. Instead of kissing her little boy, Renold, goodnight, she will be on night patrol in Balule. Qolile will, no doubt, be missing her son, but she’ll also be feeling proud to be an unarmed woman protecting some of most endangered creatures on earth from the world’s deadliest poachers – and all under the light from the brightest African Moon I have ever seen.
Where to stay
Set in a lush, four-hectare garden, this historic hotel is a converted home (where one-time resident Nelson Mandela wrote his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom). Plush suites are available from $566 per night, including breakfast.
Perfect for short-stay, pre-safari layovers with an excellent restaurant and suites from $434 per night, including breakfast.
Kruger National Park
Makanyi Private Game Lodge
Intimate and exclusive, Makanyi Lodge is set in the game-rich Timbavati Game Reserve, on the western edge of Kruger National Park. Seven luxury suites and a two-bedroom villa start
at $910 per person per night all-inclusive, including two daily game drives often in silent and sustainable electric-conversion Land Rovers. Bush walks, picnics and stargazing activities are also included. Enjoy a complimentary fourth night with any three-day booking (excluding Christmas). The minimum age for guests is 14, unless exclusive use of the lodge is booked.
International Women’s Day is 8 March, internationalwomensday.com