The REAL lionesses of Africa: Stunning ‘Black Mambas’ are first all-female anti-poaching unit risking their lives to protect big cats, rhinos and elephants from men with guns


Jay Akbar, Daily Mail

Date Published


See link for many photos

Swathed in green camouflaged fatigues as they march, unarmed, through the South African wilderness, they look like more like soldiers than they do conservationists.

They are in fact the Black Mambas, an all female anti-poaching unit risking their own lives to protect the endangered animals being hunted for their horns, fur and meat.

On their daily patrols around the Balule reserve, near Kruger National Park, they face the very real prospect of being gunned down by poachers or mauled to death by the animals they swore to protect.

Despite the dangers, and against the odds, the Mambas are winning the battle against poaching. Their presence alone has reduced poaching in Balule by 75 per cent and their methods could now be rolled out across the country.

When Siphiwe Sithole told her parents she wanted to be a Black Mamba, they feared she would be eaten by a lion.

They were right to worry. Since joining in 2014, she has had two very close encounters with the King of the Jungle.

Siphiwe, 31, said: ‘The first time was when I first started working as a Mamba. I ran from it [the lion], which was wrong. You should never run from a lion!

‘I was put on a special course which taught me how to deal with wild animals, should I ever meet them. I then met some lions for a second time and this time I knew how to behave.’

The women’s backgrounds vary, but for some who come from poor families and villages, joining the Mambas is their only chance at a well paying job. Some even become the bread winners in the family.

Day-to-day duties of the 26 strong Mamba team include freeing animals trapped by barb wire snares, and patrolling the 400 square km Balule reserve looking for the slain carcasses of endangered rhinos.

Poachers killed at least 1,215 rhinos in 2014 – up from just 13 in 2007. It was this alarming trend that inspired Siphiwe to take action.  

She said: ‘I wanted to join the Black Mambas after seeing the news about the rhinos being poached, killed every day, such a horrible death. I decided if I can join the Black Mambas, I can make a difference.’

Siphiwe and her team’s heroics have now been immortalised in a Helping Rhinos documentary which is to be screened in front of members of the Royal family in London on Wednesday.

I would be walking around in the bush with them [Mambas] and all of a sudden you would see a rhino, only a few feet away. They are immense and frightened
Anneka Svenska, conservationist

The Mambas, many of whom are mothers and wives, ‘put their lives on the line every day’, said filmmaker Anneka Svenska who fronts the documentary.

She told MailOnline: ‘There is always the possibility that they could die, and the greatest danger they face is the animals themselves.

‘They are very, very dangerous. The average person would be worried about lions but it’s actually elephants you have to look out for.

‘There are an awful lot of elephants around. We would get out of the jeep to track rhinos and if an elephant came by, everyone would have to jump back in the van as quick as possible.

‘If an elephant gets angry, you can’t climb a tree. If the Mambas were to confront an elephant, they could be killed.

‘The dangers are so real. I would be walking around in the bush with them, and all of a sudden you would see a rhino, only a few feet away. They are immense and frightened.

‘There’s a good chance they can charge, this is the greatest danger. They [Mambas] must feel vulnerable when they’re out there.’

If the Mambas ever encounter a poacher, they are instructed to radio their location to armed rangers who will swoop in to arrest them.

The people who run it [poaching ‘cartels’] – right at the top – use poor, influential locals to go in and take the horn off the rhino. It’s a massive operation to get it over to Asia
 Anneka Svenska, conservationist

Through the use of specially trained dogs, helicopter patrols and an armed, quick response unit, the Mambas have helped to find and destroy ten poachers’ camps and three ‘bush meat kitchens’ since 2013.

But despite their best efforts, at least one black rhino and 14 white rhinos have been killed in Kruger National Park and the surrounding areas since 2012.

Many poachers are believed to be poor villagers hunting for bush meat which they can use to feed their families or sell to pay the bills.

But some armed and dangerous mercenaries are part of what Anneka described as a gangland cartel run by ‘very rich and dangerous people’.

She said: ‘The people who run it – right at the top – use poor, influential locals to go in and take the horn off the rhino. It’s a massive operation to get it over to Asia.’

The men they hire not only kill and rip the horns off endangered black rhinos, they also lay snares that kill animals slowly in the most excruciating way.

Anneka said: ‘We found a lot of snares. One day we came across a dead buffalo that was trapped in a snare.

‘The rangers told me it would have taken four to five weeks to die. It died the most incredibly painful death because a wire was stuck around its ankle and it eventually just exhausted its food reserves.’

The Mambas found the carcasses of dead animals by looking out for the vultures circling overhead.

But in a spiteful bid to throw them off the scent, poachers have started to lace the dead animal with poison which kills the predatory birds when they pick away at the flesh.

The Mambas also go from school to school as part of the ‘Bush Baby’ programme, telling young children with little prospects of a decent job to resist the temptation of poaching for ‘easy money’.

Anneka said: ‘When we visited the school, they were very, very poor.

‘They only eat one meal a day. A lot of them come from families that use poaching to pay for food and bills.’

But Siphiwe, who herself came from a deprived part of South Africa, said the people who hunt animals – even for their meat – are just ‘greedy’ and ‘lazy’.

She said: ‘I think that people like easy things, they don’t want to work. Some say they are pushed because they don’t have anything at home.

‘The best thing they can do is some they are pushed because they don’t have anything at home.

‘They say, “I can go and make 30,000 in a minute”. The ones who are hunting for meat, I think they are also greedy because they think that conservation is only for white people.’

‘I think the people are now recognising that we are having a big problem because if they keep on poaching the animals… something very bad will happen.

‘I believe each and every species in the world is now having an impact in our lives, so I think that they are now realising that poaching is not good through the awareness we are teaching each and every day.’