Course:CONS200/2023WT2/Fighting for conservation: The case of the all-female Black mamba anti-poaching unit

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Elephant standing near a tree in the Balule Nature Reserve
Elephant in the Balule Nature Reserve

The Black Mambas are the world’s first all female anti-poaching unit based out of South Africa’s Kruger National Park[1]. Formed in 2013, the group is composed of 36 African women that patrol the area around the park, the Balule Nature Reserve, to protect the endangered rhinoceros and elephant populations which are the prime targets of poaching[2]. The Black Mambas combat poaching by patrolling the park regularly and removing snares and other animal traps[1]. Since their formation, poaching has decreased by 89%, which the group attributes to their intensive training and military discipline which allows them to be prepared for any situation[1]. This training has ensured that the Black Mambas can patrol unarmed, which has resulted in a decrease in injury or death since poachers are disinclined to shoot unarmed patrollers[1]. This program has benefitted these young women by providing them with a stable and liveable income. Their work experience with the Black Mambas provides opportunities for women to achieve promotions or move onto higher paying occupations[3]. In addition to their remarkable achievements in combating poaching and protecting wildlife, the Black Mambas' pioneering role as the world's first all-female anti-poaching unit exemplifies the empowerment of women in conservation efforts, setting a powerful precedent for gender equality and environmental stewardship worldwide.


Poaching is the act of illegally hunting, killing, or capturing animals for their bodily parts and selling them on the black market. South Africa is home to 70% of the world's rhinoceros and Kruger National Park is home to 13,050 African elephants[4]. International animal trade is illegal in Southern Africa. However, with the black market, increased demand from South East Asian countries, in particular Vietnam and China, has valued a rhino horn at $60,000 USD per pound and ivory at $200 USD per ounce[4]. South Africa inhabits around a third of the total African black rhino population, and is home to the world’s largest population of white rhinos. Currently, 2,056 black rhinos and 12,968 white rhinos are estimated to remain on the African continent[5].

The history of rhino and elephant poaching in South Africa dates back to the arrival of the first British colonizers in Cape Town, 1647[4]. Since then, rhino and elephant populations have drastically decreased. There have been multiple occasions of different species of rhinos and elephants being on the verge of extinction. Rhinos were hunted for sport and their horns during the colonial era in South Africa. Uncontrolled hunting was the leading cause of rhino deaths and in more recent times rhino horns have been used as a symbol of wealth[5]. Horns are also used in traditional Chinese medicinal practices, which led to a surge of poaching during the 1970’s and 1980’s. In 1993, rhino horn was removed from the official list of Traditional Chinese Medicine as it was scientifically proven to have no health benefits. But, in 2018 China reversed the ban on trade on rhino horn. Today, horns are crushed into a fine powder and put into tablets or dissolved into water and consumed orally. Rhino horn is a luxury good, valued at 3 times that of gold[5].

In 1989, Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora listed African elephants under Appendix I, which restricts international trade of their parts[6]. But, high demand for ivory has continued the illegal trafficking and poaching of elephants. The most detrimental years have been in the last two decades where poachers killed over 2,500 elephants in 2011 and a total of 1,028 rhinos in the Kruger National Park in 2017, according to the South African Department of Environmental Affairs[6]. In total, almost 10,000 rhinos have been lost to poaching in South Africa since the start of this crisis in 2007[5]. As a result, African Savanna elephants, white rhinos and black rhinos have all been declared endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species[4].

The expansive size of Kruger National Park makes it challenging to protect and patrol all areas and the large number of staff needed increases the likelihood of internal corruption that may enable poaching[5]. The rise in number of poaching incidents across southern Africa indicates that poachers have shifted criminal activities across the region, into other countries, where rhinos can be found. The problem of poaching is largely rooted in poverty. “A black person coming from the communities [earns] maybe 5,000 rand a month, that same person could get 250,000 for shooting a rhino” (Au Yeung, 2019). In South Africa, conservation is largely seen as a “white man’s” game due to racial privilege. Within the Kruger Park community, the poorest residents are disproportionally Black South Africans who have been historically segregated from conservation areas[4]. Poachers are ostracized and “kill a poacher, save a rhino” is a common phrase on bumper stickers, billboards and signage in South Africa[4]. Fortunately, many are seeing that the way forward in conservation is not by the villainization of poachers. Poaching of rhinos is not isolated to one country but rather a regional issue that impacts multiple countries and the rhino population as a whole.The south African government needs to act decisively and with urgency to increase to protection capabilities of rhinos and elephants throughout the country.

The Black Mambas on duty

Remedial Actions

The Black Mambas have been confronting poaching by establishing an unarmed, consistent, and courteous presence which functions as crime prevention within Kruger National Park[3]. This presence begins in the Mambas’ intensive three-month training program, in which the new recruits build physical and survival skills. This includes running three miles daily, learning surveillance practices, and training for using walkie-talkies. Their last month of training focuses on survival tactics in the bush like building shelter and finding food and water[3]. The Black Mambas attribute their success to this training program, since their wilderness and survival skills have resulted in zero causalities on the job since the group’s formation[3]. The Black Mambas have utilized these skills to patrol the Balule Nature Reserve 21 days per month in search of snares, human tracks, or other suspicious activities[3]. Their preventative measures have resulted in a poaching decrease of 89% since 2013[7]. In addition to patrolling, they also offer exclusive tours of their classrooms and of the patrolled area. The profits of these tours are reinvested in the program, and fund the Black Mambas’ education, supplies, and salaries[3]

This unarmed and highly trained strategy has been beneficial for preserving wildlife and keeping the Mambas and poachers safe. Although the Black Mambas have frequent encounters with lions, elephants, and rhinos, their training allows them to remain calm and make quick decisions to preserve their safety[3]. This approach not only safeguards the well-being of wildlife but also fosters positive relationships between the Black Mambas and the animals inhabiting the park. These benefits also extend to the relationship between poachers and the Black Mambas. Since the Black Mambas patrol unarmed, poachers are hesitant to use force against them; this has resulted in fewer casualties for poachers[3].

The Black Mamba program has had positive impacts for wildlife, but it has also improved the lives of the women involved. As South Africa faces a poverty crisis which has affected a majority of the population, the Black Mambas provide an opportunity for young African women to take on leadership roles and support themselves and their families, as many Black Mambas are the breadwinners of their large families[3]. The Black Mambas offer a liveable wage for these women, and opportunities for promotion to drivers or sergeants, which offer higher pay[3]. This program has benefitted the lives and futures for these women, and improved their communities as a whole.


The Black mambas Anti-poaching Unit (APU) has been highly impactful in conservation efforts both within South Africa as well as globally. In 2015, the unit received the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) Champions of the Earth Award. This recognizes outstanding, international leaders from the public and private sectors whose work has transformed the environment on a significant scale [8]. Achim Steiner, the UNEP Executive Director at the time praised the group, stating, “ 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” [8].

The Black Mambas’ influence expands past their award-winning accomplishments as they continue to work with 11 schools near the Balule Nature Reserve, educating the children about the importance of protecting their local wildlife [9]. The grass-roots approach has contributed to a sense of pride amongst Black Mambas members, that resonates with their community [10].The idea of working within conservation was not necessarily at the top of the list for the children thinking about their futures, however learning about the Black Mambas has changed that[9].

The success of the Black Mambas has as well inspired a collection of other conservation efforts across the globe. Their application of empowering women to protect their local wildlife has become a model that has been subsequently used and replicated by other regions, thus demonstrating the far-reaching impact of their work[11] . The Black Mambas lead a great example of how grassroots initiatives can make a significant difference as we continue to fight the challenges of wildlife poaching and environmental degradation.

Along the lines of policy and legislation, their work has contributed to the funding increase and support for anti poaching efforts in South Africa , alongside the application of more strict regulations and laws for efforts to fight the illegal wildlife trade[9] . This has further led to tactile approaches and impacts in endangered species conservation including Rhinoceros whose populations have been seen declining due to poaching incidents throughout recent years[12] .

The Path Forward

2 Rhinos feeding in a field
Rhinos from South Africa

The remarkable success of the Black Mambas, South Africa's all-female anti-poaching unit, has demonstrated the power of community-based conservation efforts. Since the all female anti-poaching group was founded in South Africa, there has been recognizable impacts on the reduction of poaching activities within their patrol boundaries. Since establishment in 2013 the black Mambas have achieved documented reduction in poaching activities by 89% as well as a 62% decline in the death of rhinos due to poaching within the Balule Nature Reserve[7]. Given the history and prevalence of hunting of large game in South Africa, particularly in the Balule Nature Reserve (BNR) where the Black Mambas operate, these women will need to sustain their efforts indefinitely making their work that much crucial to the conservation of wildlife within these boundaries. Looking to the future, sustaining and expanding the impact of the Black Mambas will be crucial for the long-term conservation of South Africa's wildlife. The unit's holistic approach, which combines on-the-ground patrols with community engagement and education, positions them well to maintain their success over time.

One of the Black Mamba's future strategies for maintaining long term conservation is the continued empowerment of women from the local communities. By providing stable employment, skill development,  the unit has been able to improve the economic well-being of the women and their families while serving as a powerful example for the younger generation. The Black Mambas currently have a "Bush Babies'' program, which attempts to integrate conservation education into local high school curricula [13]. As the Black Mambas initiative grows this program should be expanded and strengthened. Through education there is the ability to instil a conservation mindset in youth. By implementing this kind of community outreach the Black Mambas can ensure that their legacy can continue to be passed down, even as current members retire or move on.

Expanding this particular conservation model to reach more women in surrounding areas could further amplify the Black Mamba's impact and inspire a new generation of conservation leaders. In a study done in 2016 scientists examined the dynamics of communities in Africa where communities commonly interacted with wildlife while living close to protected areas. This study found that when there was close engagement with community members by conservation officials the outcomes lead to increased continuing protection [14]. When community members are involved in solutions and are compensated for their efforts, there is less need to acquire economic benefits from poaching and illegal wildlife trade. By compensating community members or providing them with opportunities as the Black Mambas have, reduces the economic benefit affiliated with the hunting of wild game. Motives surrounding poaching by community members in South Africa tend to be correlated to the influxes of economic benefit associated with the poaching. With South Africa's legacy of oppression and colonialism there has often been frustration expressed at the lack of employment and economic opportunities provided to locals in the realm of conservation. In the past communities were omitted from conservation initiatives and excluded from jobs, this created a perception that communities benefited from poaching [15]. For the conservation of South Africa's Wildlife to be successful community members must be a part of the conservation efforts. The Black Mambas initiative exemplifies efforts to address this issue by empowering their community members while supporting their employer with means of making a livelihood. In addition by hiring women in conservation, generating more female engagement within the region, efforts like these not only provide short term prevention but assist in eliminating local aspects of the poaching industry.    

To sustain their operations, the Black Mambas will need to secure reliable and long-term funding sources. While their basic salaries are currently covered by donations and Transfrontier Africa, the unit relies heavily on additional funding to cover the costs of training, equipment, and vehicles. Establishing partnerships with conservation organizations, private donors, and government agencies could help ensure the financial stability of the Black Mambas efforts allowing for job security and conservation performance within this program[16]. Additionally as the Black Mambas initiative develops the organization should consider expansion to other protected areas and parks within South Africa. By continuing to educate and empower communities, hopefully the Black Mambas can create tangible benefits for wildlife and help end the fight against poaching in the African savannah.


The establishment of the Black Mambas Anti-Poaching unit (APU) has marked a significant transformation in the approach to wildlife conservation in the Greater Kruger Park region. Traditionally, the task of combating poachers was a male-dominated practice, often involving the use of firearms [17]. However, the emergence of the Black Mambas has challenged this pattern, as a group of brave, fit, and confident women have taken on the responsibility of protecting their local wildlife from decimation.

An African Elephant from Kruger National Park close to the Balule Nature Reserve
African Elephant from Kruger National Park close to the Balule Nature Reserve

Through their unwavering patrol practices and dedication to the cause, the Black Mambas have made great strides in protecting the region’s wildlife [17]. Their presence has been a testament to the power of community-driven conservation efforts, where local residents have taken ownership of the protection of their natural resources.

In addition to their on-the-ground patrols, the Black Mambas have also engaged in educational initiatives to raise awareness about the threats facing wildlife. At the Pondoro Game Lodge in the Greater Kruger Park, the members of the Black Mambas APU have the opportunity to interact with international safari tourists, educating them about the risks to wildlife survival and the measures they have taken to protect them against poaching [18].

The impact of the Black Mambas’ efforts has been tangible, as evidenced by the recent elimination of rhino poaching in the Olifants West region [19]. While the removal of rhino horns has played a role in discouraging poachers, the committed dedication of the Black Mambas APU has been a crucial factor in this success. Their commitment to the protection of wildlife has set a powerful example for other communities to follow, demonstrating the transformative potential of grassroots conservation initiatives.

As the Black Mambas continue their patrols and educational outreach, they serve as a beacon of hope for the future of wildlife conservation in the Greater Kruger Park. Their story demonstrates the power of community-driven action, where ordinary individuals can become extraordinary advocates for the protection of the natural world.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Riggal, Jeremy (21 November 2023). "The Black Mambas: South Africa's all-female anti-poaching unit". BBC.
  2. "Black Mambas Anti Poaching Unit". 10 Years of Helping Rhinos. 2024.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 3.7 3.8 3.9 Goyanes, Cristina (October 12 2017). "These Badass Women are Taking on Poachers— and Winning". National Geographic. Check date values in: |date= (help)
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 Au Yeung, Christy (Jan 16, 2019). "Beyond the Gun: How Apartheid, Poverty and Poaching Intersect in South Africa".
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 International Rhino Foundation (Feb 27, 2023). "A New Poaching Problem in South Africa".
  6. 6.0 6.1 Poaching Facts (May 2023). "Elephant Poaching Statistics".
  7. 7.0 7.1 Danoff-Burg, James A. (2022). "Individual and community-level impacts of the unarmed all-women Black Mamba Anti-Poaching Unit". Zoo Biology. 41: 479–490 – via Wiley Online Library.
  8. 8.0 8.1 "black mamba apu - inspiration and action".
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 Missing or empty |title= (help)
  10. "The Black Mambas, a Mostly Female Anti-Poaching Force, Have Won a Top U.N. Environmental Award". Archived from the original on |archive-url= requires |archive-date= (help).
  11. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  12. "Poaching stats".
  13. "Sponsor a Black Mamba". Helping Rhinos. April 3rd, 2024. Check date values in: |date= (help)
  14. Cooney, Rosie (2016). "From Poachers to Protectors: Engaging Local Communities in Solutions to Illegal Wildlife Trade". Society for the Conservation of Biology. 10: 367–374 – via Conservation Letters.
  15. Hübschle, Annette M (2017). "The social economy of rhino poaching: Of economic freedom fighters, professional hunters and marginalized local people". Current Sociology. 65(3: 427–447 – via Sage Journals.
  16. Davey, Derek (September 27 2023). "Who are the Black Mambas? Meet the Female Anti-Poaching Unit of Greater Kruger". Check date values in: |date= (help)
  17. 17.0 17.1 "How the Black Mambas, South Africa's first all-women anti-poaching team, are protecting endangered rhinos".
  18. "pondoro game lodge, south africa anti-poaching unit news".
  19. "Who are the Black Mambas? Meet the Female Anti-Poaching Unit of Greater Kruger".

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