Wildlife poaching is both widespread and lucrative, so one might doubt how effective a single person, or even a small group of people, could be in confronting this global criminal menace.
But Felicia Mogakane and Collet Ngobeni wouldn’t doubt it at all.
Both are members of the Black Mamba Anti-Poaching Unit, a 26-member South African ranger group comprised mostly of women.
Since the unit was founded in 2013, its unarmed members have conducted foot patrols, observations, vehicle checks, road blocks, and public education campaigns – and with great success. To date, they are credited with the arrest of six poachers, a 76-percent reduction in wildlife snarings, and the removal of more than 1,000 snares, as well as the shutting down of five poachers’ camps and two bush meat kitchens.
“In my community, a lot of people kill wild animals, [and] I said to myself, enough is enough,” Ms. Ngobeni said. “I have to stand up, [and] teach people how important nature is, because of the love of nature that I have.”
Ngobeni, along with Ms. Mogakane, spoke to The Christian Science Monitor during a recent visit to New York City, where they traveled to accept the United Nations’ top environmental accolade – the Champions of the Earth Award – on behalf of their fellow Black Mambas. The organization is being honored for its courage in fighting illegal wildlife trade at the community level, according to the UN.
Both women expressed a similar reason for signing up to join the unit – a cause that is very personal to each of them.
“When we sit back and look at the poachers [killing] the wild animals, [eventually] there won’t be any animals in our community,” Ngobeni says. Many in their communities depend upon animals for their livelihoods, not to mention the value of preserving the wildlife for posterity, she says.
The area that the Black Mambas protect, the Balule Private Game Reserve, is home to rhinos, leopards, lions, elephants, cheetahs, and hippos, and is part of the Greater Kruger National Park.
“All of the animals – they deserve to live,” she says. “They are innocent.”
Mogakane was similarly inspired to join the Black Mambas after hearing a presentation from the group. Like her colleagues, she goes on patrol for three weeks at a time, checking fences, looking for signs of poachers, and often walking up to 12 miles a day.
During their time off, the Black Mambas talk with local people to gather information and to discourage poaching, as well as to engage in educational outreach.
Mogakane says she's become more comfortable with her work over time.
“[At first] I felt scared and nervous at the same time, and I was thinking that I was doing a risky job,” she says. “After I had done the training I started to love my job; for me, it is not risky because I love what I am doing and am prepared to give my all.”
The unit takes into consideration the connection between money, criminal gangs, and poaching, as well as how the poverty that surrounds the park helps to fuel poaching.
Ibrahim Thiaw, United Nations assistant secretary general and deputy executive director of the UN Environment Programme, spoke in a recent interview about the challenges of combatting the illegal practice.
“It is a global phenomenon, [and] it requires action at the international level,” Mr. Thiaw says, speaking to the recognition he hopes the Black Mambas will have following their UN honor. “It is also important to bring this to the attention of the international community.”
He adds his own words of praise for the work of the Black Mambas.
“There are brave men and women – women in this case – who are ready to sacrifice their lives to protect their environment,” he says, “and to protect nature for the sake of themselves and their children.”
As for their future plans, both Mogakane and Ngobeni say that they have no plans to change careers.
“I am going to do this my whole life, because it is what I love, and it is what I am passionate about,” Mogakane says.