This year marks the sixth anniversary of the Black Mamba Anti-Poaching Unit, South Africa’s predominantly female team of anti-poachers. Established in 2013, the 36 women patrol the Balule Nature Reserve, a 100,000-acre private wildlife reserve in northern South Africa, on the western boundary of Kruger National Park.
The women, some of whom are as young as 18, are there to protect the country’s lions, pangolin, elephants and rhinos, whose horns are thought to have medicinal properties and can garner hundreds of thousands of dollars on the black market.
The Mambas track about 78 miles of the park’s border for eight hours a day, looking for snares or traps, inspecting the border fence and searching cars for weapons or contraband. But while they may look like soldiers in their camouflage uniforms, the Mambas are completely unarmed.
In addition to the pride of working in a traditionally male environment, being a Mamba gives the women the opportunity to show their children — especially their female children — that women can hold meaningful work outside of the home. Their beginning salary is about 3,500 South African rand, or about $224 dollars, monthly, with the chance to earn more the higher they go.
Pandoro Safari Game Lodge and Roar Africa both offer tours to visit with the Mambas.
“These women are part of the changing-face of the male-dominated safari industry, and without them our wild spaces and wildlife would perish,” said Deborah Calmeyer, Roar Africa’s founder and chief executive.
Collet Ngobeni has been a Black Mamba since 2013. Now 34, Ms. Ngobeni lives in Bushbuckridge, a small community nearly two hours away from the Reserve, with her husband and two young children.
As a young girl, did you ever imagine you would one day be patrolling a park, saving animals from poachers?
When I grew up, I only knew that wild animals are for white people! They didn’t belong to black people. But that’s not true. Wild animals belong to all of us because it’s nature.
What kind of work did you think you’d be doing?
I only knew that if you go to university, you need to be a teacher or doctor. We changed that mind-set. They can be a photographer. They can be anything that they like as long as they love it.
We go to the school here, called Bush Babies, to educate these kids on nature. When they see us in schools, because of our uniforms they call us soldiers and they get excited to see us. They pay attention to us. We tell them that they must tell their parents that it’s not good to kill wild animals. We have people who have a lot of money — they check for the boys that are poor, then recruit them to be poachers.
What did you do before becoming a Mamba?
I was at home. I was not working. Now and then I heard news on the radio speaking about poachers and rhinos. I was not aware of anti-poaching; I wanted to be a guide or a tracker. So when I heard they want women to do the anti-poaching, I was very happy to be the one who applied. I wanted to give a change to my community.
How did your family react to the news that you would be out in the bush without any guns or weapons?
My husband was very positive about this. He said, ‘You are going to make a change in our communities and in our kids and in our future generations.’
My mother was scared. She said, ‘These people are going to kill you!’ I explained that it’s not only for me but for future generations. They need to see wildlife in real life, not in postcards.
She is not scared anymore because she realized how great a job we are doing. My life is not in danger. These poachers are not in the reserve for the human beings, they are there for the animals. If they see us they don’t come after us. They just run away.
I know how to interact in the bush. So, I don’t feel in danger when I’m in the bush. I don’t go alone. We work in a group.
What was your scariest moment?
In 2014, I was with two of my colleagues patrolling the fence. There was a car parked next to the fence. They were outside the reserve and we were inside. If we see cars we greet them with smiles, but these people did not want to speak to us. They were poachers. I was scared. But we were not going to leave them there. We needed to show them that we are here with pride and we know what we are doing. They saw us try to take their number plate. We managed to scare them. They drove away.
But that raises a good question. How do you stay safe?
We have smartphones with an app that let’s everyone know where we are. When we go out to patrol we tell the others where we’re going. If we see rhinos we take pictures and send to the office so they know where to send people to patrol at night.
What was your training like?
The first one was very hard: They were training us how to survive in the bush without bathing — for seven weeks! That was very hard because we would wake up early in the morning, and run or walk along the fences. We made our houses with branches. They showed us how to interact when we see the Big Five [elephant, lion, leopard, rhinoceros and Cape buffalo]. The second training was two weeks.
I stay in the reserve now for 21 days and go home for 10 days. People donated houses to us in the bush. We call them compounds. We share with two or three people.
What do people say when they run into a group of women patrolling the park?
At first they thought it was a man’s job what we are doing. They were not giving us the respect they were supposed to give us. Now they see that this woman can do the job they are doing.
When they see us they love us! Especially when we are at the gate doing road checks. Because in their lodges they tell them what we do in the reserve. We go there to educate those people that they don’t have to poach animals, or take firewood with them because it’s illegal.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
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