It’s in the north of Limpopo amid dry, dusty ,and searing heat where even in mid-winter temperatures can reach 28 degrees, the unarmed, nearly all female anti-poaching unit the Black Mamba’s operate.
The Mamba’s reported successes are nothing short of spectacular.
A 76% drop in poaching, the top United Nations award for conservation – Champions of the Earth for sustainable development, climate change and a life of dignity for all, local employment, community involvement, and on the day The Citizen visited, 42 snares had been removed.
For its here and on the financial front, the real war against poaching is being fought, said head ranger and Black Mamba founder Craig Spencer.
“When the rhino poaching hit us, it us hard,” Spencer said. “We literally had one tracker on a bicycle with a knobkerrie.”
“Economically, we had only one option which was to put more pressure on the land to make it produce so we could intervene on behalf of the rhino. However it’s a bit like burning your furniture to warm your house, it would have put too much pressure on the land,” said Spencer.
Enter the departments of Environmental Affairs – which managed environmental policy – and Public Works – which provided funding and the Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP).
Under the EPWP, said the Environmental Programmes program manager Pitso Mojapelo, the Environmental Monitors programme was begun, and together with the Kruger to Canyon Biosphere under Marie –Tinka Uys’ stewardship, the Mamba’s were born.
Although a vital cog in the war on poaching, the Mamba’s only form a small part of the entire machine. With more than 260 environmental monitors in the system, the groups have formed into rhino ambassadors, herd monitors (to work with local farmers whose cattle open grasslands for renewed growth and grazing grasslands for wildlife), and more.
The running costs are tremendous – nearly R7 million – a year and in a depressed economy, it’s getting harder and harder to make ends meet.
Government pays the environmental monitors salaries, while it’s up to the employers to supply training, uniforms, rations for patrols, and especially for the Mamba’s walking up to 20km a day, boots are a regular and expensive cost.
In the next three years, the DoE has made R235 million available for salaries. It sounds a lot, until Mojapelo stresses the figure is for all the EPWP’s operating countrywide.
Recently the Balule Nature Reserve – home to the Black Mamba’s – had to help with a black rhino caught in a snare. “Four helicopter, transport trucks, veterinarians, four days day and night in the field, the bill was R220 000,” said Spencer.
Just to fix the roads is more than the Mamba’s entire budget for the year. The Mamba’s also go to schools, work with communities, and support the communities they live in.
“There’s a donation button on our website. We’re bad at raising money; we don’t know how to do it. We’re terrible at it. We’re conservationists,” Spencer said.
“Running out of money for operational expenses is our single biggest threat. We’re living hand to mouth here.”