Scoop had the amazing opportunity to interview the poacher patrollers The Black Mambas and multiple award-winning author Ben Lerwill. Ben’s latest book, Climate Rebels, tells stories that are proof that one person’s actions can grow into something big and powerful, that can help change the world. He highlights people, including The Black Mambas, doing remarkable things to look after the planet.
Interview with The Black Mambas
First of all, can you please tell us about who The Black Mambas are? What work do you do?
The Black Mambas are young ladies from rural African communities who work in Greater Kruger to protect local wildlife from poaching. As we are an anti-poaching unit, we do various things to protect our animals: we patrol our nature reserve day and night, we look for snares-traps for animals that were set by poachers to get meat, we destroy poachers’ camps, we help to maintain the reserve, we do road blocks to prevent wildlife trafficking, we inspect properties to make sure they are safe, and we go to rural schools to tell children about poaching, and how The Black Mambas stepped up to protect wild animals.
How did you find each other and form the Black Mambas?
The Black Mambas Anti-Poaching Unit was founded by Transfrontier Africa, a conservation NGO (non-governmental organisation) in 2013 – a year where poachers killed a lot of rhinos. Craig Spencer, the director, came up with a solution to recruit young women to protect our animals, because of their caring nature that would cherish life, both of animals and humans. Craig and his team spoke to the chiefs from local communities, the chiefs recommended several ladies who were invited to interview with Transfrontier Africa. After that, the first 6 Mambas were selected.
Did you have training to become anti poachers? Do you use weapons? What are the dangers you face?
We did have a very intense training – the official training for future rangers was very tough. We had to run, learn how to track humans and animals, learn animal behaviour and how to be safe while patrolling, as well as qualifying in first aid. We did have a weapon training as it was part of the course but we will never carry guns as we don’t want to harm anyone and will never put the life of an animal above the life of a human. Our technique is to build relationships with the communities and educate them about wildlife and the environment so that they understand why poaching animals wrong. The Black Mambas are trying to build a truly patriotic community around the Greater Kruger, so that people see value in nature, learn to love it and become allies to them.
The most dangerous thing is animals such as lions, rhinos, buffalo, leopards and even elephants as all these animals are very dangerous if threatened. Poachers are not that a big threat as they themselves do not want to be seen and caught.
Can you tell us about what a normal day is for you?
We wake up before the sun rises, and start our morning foot patrol. We patrol the fence with always at least two mambas on duty for safety. After the patrol we go back to our camp, cook, eat, rest and sometimes go to town to buy food or for any other reason. Then we prepare for our night patrol in the vehicle. We start before sun sets and finish around midnight. Night patrol is always conducted in the vehicle because a lot of dangerous animals go hunting at this time. Sometimes we do afternoon patrol in between. Also, we divide our teams up to do different things during the day. One team patrols, another team looks for snares, the third team does the road blocks and checks vehicles to prevent wildlife trafficking.
Why do you think you are the first women anti poachers? Do you feel others will follow in your tracks?
We are the first all women anti-poaching unit in the world, and more so, the first unit that does not use guns. We were selected for the project because local women are care givers, we nurture life, we nurture our children and similarly we nurture animals. We give lot of love to them and we do not want anything to happen to somebody or something we love!
People do get inspired and we received some requests from other countries to replicate our model of anti-poaching such as Zimbabwe, Namibia, Mozambique. The programs there are already up and running with women deployed as anti-poachers. We hope to inspire young women in South Africa and globally to be the role models in their communities through protecting their own wildlife and animals.
What else could countries and governments be doing to help protect these animals?
Countries and their governments should help and support the rangers in the parks because the work is tough. Also, this would help a lot to spread awareness, teach children and adults about poaching and other issues so that our community becomes more aware, and, in turn, keen to be environmentally pro-active, and be a climate rebel in any way they can!
Our readers would love to know more about how they can help and what they can do from afar to help in the plight of these animals. Please tell us how we can help!
You can help The Black Mambas by spreading the word about the work that we do, why we do it and why guns are not a solution! Spreading the word will help change people’s attitudes globally. You can do fundraising to support environmental NGOs all over the world, or do presentations at schools about rangers and anti-poaching units. You could even draw a poster and send to rangers (including the Black Mambas!) to show support, we love getting letters as well!
There are no limits to what you can do, children of all ages are very creative and smart and can use this to make a big difference!
Interview with Ben Lerwill
With so many environmental heroes to choose from, how did you decide who to include in the book?
It was very tricky – we could have filled the book three times over! The 25 people that we’ve included all have extraordinary tales to tell. It felt really important to get a rich variety of stories in the book, to show that all of us have the power to make a difference. So there are people at primary school and people in their 90s, people who have come up with incredible ideas and people who have changed the way we look at the world. They also come from all sorts of different places, from the plains of Mongolia to the rainforests of Brazil. In fact, the book has stories of people from every continent except Antarctica!
Can you tell us who your favourites were to research and write about?
I loved writing about Jia Wenqi and Jia Haixia, two Chinese men who decided to plant more than 10,000 trees, despite one of them being blind and the other having lost both arms. It’s an incredible tale of courage and commitment. Another of my absolute favourites is Dr Jane Goodall, who’s actually interviewed at the start of the book. She’s done so much amazing work for the planet’s wildlife, particularly chimpanzees. I have a real soft spot for the rebels in the book who devote their lives to animals – it was inspiring to speak with people like Wendi Tamariska, who works with orangutans, and Pablo Garcia Borboroglu, who helped protect huge areas of land and sea for penguins.
What do you think the three main characteristics of a climate rebel are?
This is a great question. I’d say dedication would be top of the list – having the belief that what you’re doing is the right thing, and that nothing’s going to stop you from following the path you’ve chosen. Another thing the rebels in the book have in common is true bravery – some have witnessed violence, or been ridiculed, but have continued to stand up and make a real difference. Finally, creativity features in a lot of the stories. William Kamkwamba, for example, built a windmill out of old bike parts to generate electricity for his village in Malawi, while two Australians in the book came up with a plan to make floating sea bins, to catch plastic in the oceans!
For more inspiring stories of others changing the world, check out our Activism issue!