That ol’ expression “Heart of a lion, skin of a rhino, soul of an angel” — it’s the kind of thing that’s scrawled in cursive, pinned to a million Pinterest boards, immortalized in needlepoint. It seems banal until it’s applied to this collective of women, and then it’s a revelation, prophetic.
Meet the Black Mambas, the all-women conservation unit that’s turned the bon mot into a mandate. Metaphorically, of course. Founded in 2013, the Mambas have patrolled South Africa’s Kruger National Park to thwart poachers, not with rifles or violence but through constant surveillance, an emphasis on education, and civic outreach. Posted on the Balule Reserve, the 36 members traverse the almost 100,000-acre landmass for three weeks each month to find and eliminate snares, trace poachers’ tracks, listen for gunshots, and report on even a whiff of suspicious activities.
While the women are unarmed, poachers underestimate them at their own risk. Clad in camo-patterned uniforms, badges visible, the Mambas aren’t some PR stunt or a sweet cause; they’re effective. Incidents have decreased by over 70 percent since the Mambas were founded, according to their website. And the women believe the number will continue to fall, thanks to both their skill in the field and their deliberate investment in education.
The women who’ve been recruited into the Black Mambas tend to come from the local communities — the same ones where poachers look to draw villagers into the trade. It’s not that the joiners hate animals; the fact is, opportunities to generate a real income in their neighborhoods are slim. To stress the value of conservation and to push back against the idea that poachers make fast cash, the Mambas introduced “Bush Babies” lessons to reach kids in schools. “If the Mambas patrol the fence, but their message is not getting into the communities, then they’re fighting a losing battle,” says Lewyn Maefala, who helps run the initiative. “We have to tackle both sides — in the reserve and in the classroom.” Over Skype last year, Maefala schooled me in the Mambas’ environmental efforts, changing perceptions in South Africa, and what makes women better at this work than men.
Mattie Kahn: At what point in your life did you realize you were interested in nature?
Lewyn Maefala: When I was growing up, I wanted to be a lawyer, but I didn’t have enough money to go to school. So I thought, If I can’t protect people, I’ll protect nature. I’ve loved nature since I was young, and I wished that one day I would come and help save wildlife. After he founded Black Mambas, Craig [Spencer] went to villages to recruit new members. I was recruited, I came, and now that’s what I do.
MK: I know this is an obvious question, but what do animals need protection from?
LM: It’s poachers. Lately, we’re focused on rhinos, since the rate of killing them is so high. People come inside our reserve, looking for rhinos to kill for their horns, which they sell for money. We protect the animals, and we are there to remind the poachers that we are here, and we are watching.
MK: When you first decided to join the Black Mambas, what did people think? How supportive are local communities of this work?
LM: At first, they thought it was dangerous for me to do this kind of job. “It’s a man’s job!” I just laughed. Now they’re used to it, and they love it, especially because I’m doing it as a woman. I think mostly communities are supportive because they know that what we do is important.