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All-women team goes on the hunt for poachers in South Africa

Named for the most feared snake in Africa, the Black Mambas are a specially trained all-female anti-poaching team. Day and night, they sweep through a South African game reserve, protecting rhinos and other endangered species and looking for any signs of poachers. Special correspondent Martin Seemungal reports.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    But, first, the high-profile killing of Cecil the lion by an American dentist in Zimbabwe recently has put the spotlight back on big game hunting and poaching in Africa.

    Today, Zimbabwe lifted the ban on lion, leopard and elephant hunting, which it imposed after the killing and worldwide attention which followed.

    Tonight, we take a look at efforts to stop illegal poaching in neighboring South Africa, with a one-of-a-kind group which is fighting to protect endangered species.

    NewsHour special correspondent Martin Seemungal has our story.

  • MARTIN SEEMUNGAL:

    They take their name from the most feared snake in Africa. The Black Mambas are a specially trained all-women anti-poaching unit, protecting rhinos and other endangered species.

  • FELICIA MOHAKANE, Black Mamba Anti-Poaching Unit:

    I wanted to protect the rhinos.

  • MARTIN SEEMUNGAL:

    Mm-hmm. .

  • FELICIA MOHAKANE:

    Because I heard a lot about people, those who are killing rhinos. So I just had an interest that I must have and work here and — and protect those rhinos.

  • MARTIN SEEMUNGAL:

    Right.

    They're critical eyes and ears on the ground, patrolling the perimeter fences, looking for any signs of poacher incursions. They walk 20 miles, often longer, during the day, and they work at night, a loud, very visible display that they are still watching after dark.

    They use a vehicle at night because it is far too dangerous to come out on foot. But there are still threats. The wild animals — that's an elephant they have to back off. Lions and leopards hunt at night. Poachers are usually heavily armed. All of the women admit it wasn't easy in the beginning.

    Siphiwe Sithole is one of the Black Mamba veterans. She runs the operation center, but spent three years on the beat in the bush.

  • SIPHIWE SITHOLE, Black Mamba Anti-Poaching Unit:

    Knowing that there is dangerous animals, you just think, I don't know when I am going to face a lion. I don't know when am I going to face a rhino, so, yes, first time when I go, I was afraid.

  • MARTIN SEEMUNGAL:

    All of them got over those fears.

  • WOMAN:

    At first, I was scared, but each and every time when you go out, I get used to it, and I'm loving it.

  • MARTIN SEEMUNGAL:

    The Black Mambas work in Balule Game Reserve, which is part of the greater Kruger National Park. Kruger is enormous, the size of the state of New Jersey.

    The rhino population is constantly threatened by poachers, in Balule, there has been a sharp drop in attacks since the Black Mambas were deployed.

  • CRAIG SPENCER, Warden, Balule Game Reserve:

    They are African women in an African context doing this job for the first time in the history of Africa.

    Yes, I copy that. I copy that. Good luck.

  • MARTIN SEEMUNGAL:

    Craig Spencer is the warden of Balule and the one who created the Black Mambas. He rates their overall performance as excellent and says they often do better than men on the foot patrols.

  • CRAIG SPENCER:

    The women's ability to pick up those things, you know, to see those subtle differences, is much higher than the men. They're much more observant. I think men are too interested in riding quad bikes and four-by-fours and carrying big guns and jumping out of helicopters. The women aren't interested in any of that at all.

  • MARTIN SEEMUNGAL:

    They don't carry weapons in the field. The poachers usually do. And they're often caught on cameras mounted throughout the park. The pictures are transmitted to three different smartphones.

  • CRAIG SPENCER:

    If I zoom in, you can see the guy in the front is carrying a weapon. There's a third guy backing him up behind. And he's also carrying some sort of a weapon. If we put it on the computer, we can enhance the picture. And you can see, these guys are up to no good.

  • MARTIN SEEMUNGAL:

    If the Black Mambas spot a poacher or need support, they call for backup.

    Armed rangers are on constant standby, ready to react when the call comes. In the three years they have been operational, they have earned the respect in a profession long dominated by men. They are determined to prove themselves.

  • GOODNESS MLANGA, Black Mamba Anti-Poaching Unit:

    They're wondering, what kind of woman are you doing men's job? Yes, I told them that's it's not a man's job. Anything that a man can do, I can do it.

  • MARTIN SEEMUNGAL:

    But work in the park is only half of the Black Mamba equation. There is a furious battle going on in the many villages surrounding the park, a battle for hearts and minds.

    The unemployment rate in these areas is 80 percent, sometimes even higher. The poachers know that, and they take advantage of it. But when the women return for their regular breaks, they bring an important message.

    Nocry Mzimba is home for her seven-day break. She will spend much of that time talking to teenagers.

  • NOCRY MZIMBA, Black Mamba Anti-Poaching Unit:

    I'm warning them that it's dangerous out there. It's too much risky for them if they want to poach, because rangers, they are waiting for them to get inside so that they can be killed — they can kill those poachers.

  • MARTIN SEEMUNGAL:

    The women also target schools in areas where poachers are known to be most active.

  • LEWYN MAEFALA, Black Mamba Anti-Poaching Unit:

    We're letting information go out to the community, but in the reserve, we have got Black Mambas that will protect our rhinos. So if a parent is a poacher or something and they come into our reserve, the kids can act as an early warning system that the parents shouldn't come into the reserve, so that's what we want.

  • MARTIN SEEMUNGAL:

    Eleven-year-old Jenny Revong has her own ideas on how to fight the poachers.

  • JENNY REVONG, Student:

    We must make lots and lots and lots of poachers everywhere around you're going to say, save the rhinos and the poachers.

  • MARTIN SEEMUNGAL:

    The message is getting through, making it more difficult for the poachers to successfully recruit people in these villages. There are 26 Black Mambas at Balule. The warden wants to train more, but funding is already tight.

    Amy Clark manages the office.

  • AMY CLARK, Office Manager, Balule Game Reserve:

    It's very frustrating, because potentially there is so much more we could do, but we need the funding to enable us to do that. So, it does get very frustrating and quite stressful as well at times, when you are sort of running around. Sort of almost feels like we're begging sometimes, but, unfortunately, that's what we need to do to be able to get the funds to continue.

  • MARTIN SEEMUNGAL:

    The Mambas' salary is covered by the South African National Parks Authority, but it's not much, about $250 a month, the extreme low end of South Africa's national pay scale, yet similar to what other park workers get. But they say they're driven to do this because they say they want to preserve something for their children.

  • FELICIA MOHAKANE:

    We want our children to be able to see rhinos live, not from a television or a magazine that there once being a rhino in some years ago. We want them to see them live in the reserve.

  • GOODNESS MLANGA:

    It is important for us to save the rhinos, so that the next generation will be able to see that they are rhinos, not just by history that there was rhinos like as it's a history that there was dinosaurs.

  • MARTIN SEEMUNGAL:

    For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Martin Seemungal in the Balule Reserve, South Africa.

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