White rhinos and Black Mambas

Dressed in a baggy green camouflage uniform and black work boots, long ponytail swinging against her back, Tsakane Nxumalo, 26, and her partner Naledi Malungane, 21, stride alongside an elephant-proof electric fence that is 7 feet high and nearly 100 miles long. The potent, honey-like odor of purple-pod cluster-leaf trees hangs heavy in the humid summer air, while overhead a yellow-billed hornbill swoops to perch on the skeleton of a dead leadwood tree. Nxumalo and Malungane are members of the Black Mambas Anti-Poaching Unit. Named after a snake that is native to the region and long, fast, and highly venomous, the Mambas strive to protect the animals of the Balule Nature Reserve within Greater Kruger National Park, a South African wilderness that is about the size of Israel.

Nxumalo and Malungane, who both grew up near the unit’s headquarters but only got to know each other since they became Mambas, are checking, as they do every day of their 21-day shift, for breaches in the fence. Mostly this entails collecting rocks to shore up the places where animals such as warthogs and leopards have tried to burrow their way under, but periodically they come across a spot where humans have cut the fence to hunt animals for bushmeat or, worse, poach rhinos for their horns.

Listen to the story, narrated by award-winning broadcast journalist Linda Yu.

In 2013, when the first Mambas began patrolling the reserve, they quickly discovered that rhino poaching was only part of the problem. The park was also losing hundreds of animals of all species to snares every year. “It was embarrassing,” recalls Craig Spencer, 48, as he sits by a bushveld braai (barbecue) and talks over the calls of a nearby hyena. A maverick South African conservationist, he was head warden of Balule, a private animal preserve. “I should have known what was happening under my nose. It took the Mambas to show me what was going on.”

White rhinos have been hunted almost to extinction in Africa. Of the continent’s 18,000 remaining white rhinos, nearly 90 percent are in South Africa, the species’ last best hope. Kruger is home to by far the biggest white rhino population, as well as about 300 of the world’s 5,600 remaining black rhinos.

The rhinoceros horn is prized in some countries, used as a traditional medicine and a status symbol. According to the Wildlife Justice Commission, a horn fetches an average of $4,000 per pound in Africa, and as much as $8,000 per pound in Asia; given that a set of white rhino horns typically weighs 11 pounds, it’s worth between $44,000 and $88,000. South Africa’s per capita income is about $5,000 per year and its pre-COVID-19 unemployment rate was about 29 percent. Therefore, a rhino, sadly, is a tempting target. In 2017, poachers killed more than 500 rhinos in Greater Kruger National Park, including 17 in Balule.

“Poachers make me angry,” Nxumalo says, because they are killing the animals that all South Africans should be preserving for future generations. While Nxumalo is fully aware that some people poach only out of a desperation to feed their families, her commitment to the cause is unwavering. She points out that it would be devastating for both tourism and conservation to lose a member of what’s called the “Big Five,” an old hunting term that refers to the five most sought-after animals in Africa: lions, leopards, elephants, buffalo, and rhinos. Rhinos, along with elephants, are keystone megaherbivores that shape the landscape in ways that benefit other species. And the big animals in any ecosystem are usually the canaries in the coal mine, to abuse the phrase. “If we can’t prevent keystone species from going extinct,” says Tom Tochterman, “other species are also doomed.”

Since 2009, when he had an “aha!” moment during his first photo safari in South Africa, Tochterman, 60, has been a passionate supporter of this nature reserve. A retired real estate developer and a member of the Rotary Club of Chelan, Washington, he has since founded a nonprofit called Rhino Mercy, which strives to fight rhino poaching, and developed a luxury photo-safari program that helps to fund conservation work. He also earned a PhD by researching the influence of cognitive dissonance on the consumption of natural resources and ecosystem degradation.

In addition, Tochterman was a founding member of the Rotary Action Group for Endangered Species (RAGES), which has the goal of improving the lives of people by improving the habitats and lives of endangered animals of all types. He welcomes the recent addition of protecting the environment to Rotary International’s areas of focus. “We firmly believe that healthy landscapes contribute to healthy communities,” he says, adding that “the Mambas have shown that the reverse is also true.”

In 2010, Tochterman was at a bush camp, sitting around a campfire with Spencer, the former game warden who is now his close friend and partner, drinking rum-and-cokes and talking long into the night, when they lit a spark that would grow to become the Mambas. “Across Africa, the default response to poaching has been to bring in more men with more guns,” Tochterman says. “And it hasn’t worked anywhere.” It dawned on them that the only way to change the narrative was to shape the minds of the next generation, and that the best way to reach the children was through their mothers.

Tochterman and Spencer eventually learned about a government program to employ women as environmental monitors in conventional agriculture; they thought they could maybe stretch the job description to include “game ranger,” but senior management at South African National Parks questioned the concept of unarmed women operating in areas where lions, leopards, rhinos, elephants, and buffalo roam free. Tochterman was told on more than one occasion that this was a “stupid, dumb idea” that “could only have come from America.”

When the two men were finally given a chance to put their theory into action, the candidates shortlisted by bureaucrats in the government program were told what the job would entail — and they all quit. So Spencer and Tochterman got permission from the local chiefs to go into communities near the park and look for the right kind of people. The Black Mambas name was chosen by the first group, says Tochterman, symbolizing “how seriously they took their opportunity to enter an industry that had previously been off-limits to women. They wanted to make a statement that they were not window dressing.”

Word quickly spread, and within months the Mambas were receiving unsolicited applications from local women almost every day. Since the beginning, the day-to-day operations of the Mambas have been managed by Spencer’s nonprofit, Transfrontier Africa. Tochterman was key in building and financing the Mambas’ operations hub as well as the separate compound where the women stay during their shifts. He had also spent six years in the military police, so he was able to provide training in skills such as handcuffing a person. Tochterman’s Rhino Mercy nonprofit acts as the Mambas’ international fundraising arm, and it has brought them financial security. The government recently stopped funding the women’s basic salaries (around $450 per month), which was a small fraction of the total cost of the program. Tochterman says that all told, employing one Mamba costs upwards of $50,000 per year.