ARTS & CULTURE
09/10/2015 08:55 am ET

Meet The Black Mambas, South Africa's Majority-Female Anti-Poaching Unit

"More than anything, they need our attention and respect."

Julia Gunther

"I am strong. I am a woman. And I bite like a Mamba!" 22-year-old Leitah, pictured above, told photographer Julia Gunther.

Leitah is a proud member of the Black Mamba Anti-Poaching Unit, stationed on and around the Balule Nature Reserve in South Africa, located near the Kruger Reserve, home to the critically endangered black rhino as well as the endangered white rhino. Along with 23 other women and two men, Leitah spends 21 days a month patrolling the reserve, teaching locals about wilderness preservation, and keeping an eye out for poaching activities.  

Since 2008, Berlin-born photographer Gunther has been immersed in a personal project she calls "Proud Women of Africa," in which she documents the everyday lives of extraordinary women. "Women who have fought, survived, overcome or simply ignored the obstacles that life has thrown at them," Gunther specified in an email to The Huffington Post. "[They] never gave up. All of the women in my pictures have suffered in some way: they’ve been ostracized by society, are desperately poor, or have experienced terrible injustice. But they are also all still proud. Proud of who they are, of their lives and the love they represent."

Julia Gunther

Prior to learning about the mantra of the Black Mambas, Gunther's camera had chronicled everyday heroines including documented nurses, members of church marching bands, transgender women, lesbian activists and a woman fighting cancer. "When I heard about the Black Mamba Anti-Poaching Unit at the beginning of this year I knew I had found the sixth part of this project," Gunther said. Inspired by their tenacity and spirit, Gunther spent five days with these women, observing their hard work and understanding their motivations. 

Gunther captures the unarmed women patrollers who protect legendary wildlife in the region, especially the rhinoceroses, whose horns are now worth thousands on the black market. Mambas keep on the lookout for snares -- wires fashioned into loops and fixed to a fence -- that trap animals when they step into it and tighten as they attempt to move away. It's a notoriously cruel mode of killing.

The Mambas are committed to tracking down snares before animals become victims. "With a mix of lipstick, boots and camouflage fatigues, these women are watching, waiting, walking, constantly on the lookout for early evidence of poacher activity," Gunther continued. "They are a formidable and highly effective anti-poaching task team that is trying to defend and protect South Africa’s wildlife heritage against poaching."

In South Africa, the phrase "the Big Five" often refers to lions, leopards, rhinos, buffalo and elephants, the most coveted wildlife in the region. Protection of these species frequently falls into the hands of men; the Mambas are one of the rare instances a position of such importance and power would be delegated to women. 

"Each [Mamba] has a story, a dream and a vision for the future," Gunther explained. "Each has a family to support, a community to educate. Funds are scarce, yet they are passionate and determined. For some, they are the only breadwinners, feeding their families on little wages. For others this is a hopeful step towards furthering their careers. For all of them, the love for nature and its conservation runs deep. Their ethos is to protect this heritage of wildlife."

Julia Gunther

Since the unit's inception in 2013, conditions have radically improved for endangered rhinos throughout the area. The number of snaring and illegal bush-meat incidents have reduced by 75 percent, nine poacher incursions were detected and the offenders were subsequently arrested. Most impressively, according to the United Nations, not a single rhino has been poached in ten months, while other reserves have lost around two dozen. The Mambas efforts were recently recognized by the United Nations who awarded them the much-deserved 2015 Champion of the Earth Award

Through her work, Gunther aims to spread the stirring tale of the Black Mambas far and wide. "I hope to make people aware of what these women are risking and doing for all of us," she said. "They are trying to protect animals that a few generations after us might only be able to admire in a zoo."

Gunther acknowledges that the success of the Black Mamba Unit depends on circumstances that extend beyond their bravery and enthusiasm. They need our help, in the forms of fuel and mechanics, staff and uniforms, airtime and food. "But more that anything," Gunther concluded, "they need our attention and respect." 

Learn more about the Black Mamba Unit and how you can get involved by visiting their website. In the meantime, see the dazzling details of their daily lives in the images below, with captions provided by Gunther and her subjects. 

  • Julia Gunther
    Felicia and Joy checking and reloading cameras in the reserve.
  • Julia Gunther
    Lukie, 26: "Poaching is very bad. It is important that animals live. The next generation must know the rhinos and elephants in life. If poaching is allowed they will only see these animals in a picture. This is not right."
  • Julia Gunther
    (L-R) Mirren, 26: "I was so proud of Yenzekile, my sister, she is a Black Mamba and was the only breadwinner for our family. I loved to hear her stories when she came home. When she told me they were looking for more Black Mambas, I was very excited. I always want to stay in nature because I love it. I want to save the animals from the poacher. I'm proud to be a Black Mamba."Winnie, 22: "I am proud to be a Black Mamba. Many people don’t know that a woman can do this job. We will show them that we can do it. We are proud of it. When our children grow up, they will know the big five and love and respect this nature."Belinda, 27: "I am not scared. I understand animal behavior. I’ve qualified as a field ranger, I want to use my position as a Black Mamba to get experience. I would like to apply for a job at Kruger National Park so I can help people understand nature. On my off days, I teach the children in my community to understand nature, it is important not to kill animals."Dedeya, 26: "I’m proud to be a Black Mamba, to save nature for our community and our children. I want to protect the animals for the next generation. I would like to study human resources and finance and work at Kruger National Park."
  • Julia Gunther
    Proud & Yenzekile find and disable a snare laid by bush meat poachers.Proud, 25: "I love nature, I want to know more and to stop the killing of rhino and elephant. When I am doing this, I am protecting it. I want my child to know the rhino and the elephant and all the other animals."Yezenkile, 23: "I want to save money to further my career. I would like to be a paramedic if I can raise enough funds otherwise I want to be a ranger."
  • Julia Gunther
    A young Kudu is found dead. Yenzekile reports its location and situation of events to the control room.
  • Julia Gunther
    During a field trip, the Mambas examine impala horn.
  • Julia Gunther
    Patrolling the fence, looking for animal tracks or early signs of poachers.Nkateko, 24: "If you want to achieve something, you must work hard in life. I want to be a field guide. I have always known that I want to work in nature. If I get an opportunity to go to wildlife college, I know I will make it. I want to be at the highest level. I don’t give up. I will keep on trying."
  • Julia Gunther
    The Mambas are learning from professional field guide Trevor Carnaby, to identify and track animals.
  • Julia Gunther
    Happy, one of two male Mambas, was trained by Protrack and is one of the best human trackers around.
  • Julia Gunther
    The Black Mamba’s ready for briefing outside the control room.
  • Julia Gunther
    The Black Mambas wait at an observation point looking for any suspicious activity.
  • Julia Gunther
    Felicia, armed with spotlight, on the look out for poachers.
  • Julia Gunther
    Winnie, arrives back at one of the Black Mamba compounds after a five-hour dawn patrol.

Also on HuffPost:

2015 Sony World Photography Awards Competition

CONVERSATIONS