A mostly-female South African ranger group named the “Black Mambas” was recently awarded the Champions of the Earth award by the United Nations. The award, which is granted by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), recognized the “rapid and impressive impact” the 26-member team has had in combating poaching.

“Their many successes are a result of their impressive courage and determination to make a difference in their community. The Black Mambas are an inspiration not only locally, but across the world to all those working to eliminate the scourge of the illegal wildlife trade,” UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner said stated in a press release.

The Black Mambas were initially formed in 2013 to protect Balule Private Game Reserve, a section of the massive 2-million-hectare (5-million-acre) Greater Kruger National Park. As indicated by its name, Balule is home to a variety of wildlife such as leopards, lions, elephants, cheetahs, hippos, and rhinos. In just two years, the Black Mambas have reduced snaring—the most common method used by poachers—by 76 percent, shut down 10 poaching camps and three bush meat kitchens, arrested numerous poachers, and removed over 1,000 traps.

 

Yet statistics alone are a poor illustration of the efforts of South African rangers in stopping poachers. Kruger National Park is a vast space and patrolling every mile of it is all but impossible. Rangers can walk over 20 kilometers each day, and traverse many more on a vehicle, to inspect fences or look for telltale clues of poaching activity. Members of the Black Mambas will spend up to three weeks in the park on duty. It is dangerous work and many poachers do not shy away from resisting arrest. However, members of the Black Mambas point out that they were named after one of Africa’s most dangerous snakes for a good reason.

“I am not afraid, I know what I am doing and I know why I am doing it. If you see the poachers you tell them not to try, tell them we are here and it is they who are in danger.” ranger Leitah Mkhabela told the UN.

 

The Black Mambas are assisted by a canine unit, aerial support, and a special armed attachment to patrol Balule’s boundaries. In their time off, the rangers engage with local communities and plan campaigns to discourage poaching.

“Yes, our main objective is the protection of wildlife but we also strive to create a strong bond and educate the communities that live on the boundaries of Balule and the Greater Kruger Park to the benefits of saving their natural heritage,” the unit stated on their website. “It is our belief that the war on poaching will not be won with guns and bullets, but through the local communities and education.”

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