We Are the Rhinos' Bodyguards -- We Are the Black Mambas

09/22/2015 09:10 am ET | Updated Sep 22, 2016
Jeffrey Barbee/

Rhinos are neither pretty nor sweet.

They possess neither the swift power of lions nor the elegant speed of antelopes. Each body part appears assembled with no regard for proportion. Short-sightedness leads them to be short tempered. They give no indication of wanting to be our best friends.

And yet they are capable of capturing an intense loyalty.

They certainly captured ours.

We are the rhinos' bodyguards. We are the Black Mambas. And we refuse to let them become extinct on our piece of earth.

Our home -- and their home -- is the Balule Private Game Reserve in the North-West of South Africa. In the Black Mambas Anti-Poaching Unit there are 26 rangers. We cannot tell you how many rhinos. We know. We just can't risk letting the poachers know.

We grew up in the communities surrounding the Balule Reserve. We understand the whys and the hows of poaching. We understand how hard it can be to resist the lure of killing a rhino for a horn that would bring in quick and large sums of money in a community that has such limited opportunities. A person who walks into a park, at night, avoiding armed protectors, to shoot a dangerous animal might seem a hero to some. Our lives, our work, exist as a living counter example.

While we understand why those around us may be driven to steal a piece of our living heritage, it is wrong and it is unacceptable -- as wrong as the actions of those who trade and buy the result. Anyone who buys illegal-wildlife products becomes an active participant in the poaching crisis that is currently threatening not only rhinos, but elephants and many other species.

Contrary to most expectations, our work is not exciting: it is dull and hard. We walk along the fence every day. Kilometer after kilometer, month after month, between a thin, barbed electric fence and 40,000 hectares of arid woodland savanna, spikey grass and thorn thickets, in heat that can hit 32C.

Yet there is a joy in knowing a piece of earth as well as we do. We track the poachers in a landscape that shouts at us if there is just one moved stone or one broken thorn.

We don't have guns: we have walkie-talkies. We have a spotlight for night patrols: full-moon nights are the nights the poachers are most likely to come. The environment is so tough that even the best equipment falls apart and has to be replaced after less than a year in the heat and dust or torrential rain.

It is both easy and difficult to describe what being a Black Mamba is like, to explain why we do what we do. If the listener has fought for something beyond themselves, against overwhelming odds, they understand. If not, it is hard to describe. There is a sense of purpose, communal affection and strength that only hard-won experience can bring.

And the hope of ultimate success is there: our methods are working. Rhino poaching has decreased by more than 70 percent on the land that we protect since our deployment. We have removed so many snares that poachers have started to give up. At first we were picking up to 50 or 60 snares a day. Now we go days without seeing one. We destroy poacher's camps, track them and provide the necessary information to put them in jail. We encourage our communities to get involved.

Yet there is still the feeling of fighting one tiny battle on the edge of a vast campaign. We are not afraid of poachers, or lions, or scorpions, or snakes. We are afraid of failing, or worse, of succeeding too late.

Since 2004, rhino poaching has exploded. In 2014 alone, 1,215 rhinos were killed in South Africa. From 2007 to 2014, rhino poaching in South Africa increased, not by 10 or even 100 percent but by over 7,000 percent: with each death a further move toward extinction.

We are always asked what others can do when global problems can seem too huge to alter. Aims like the Development Goals or halting global-biodiversity loss may seem beyond the scope of an ordinary person. But we are all ordinary people. The United Nations Environment Programme just gave us the Champions of the Earth award for what we've accomplished as ordinary people.

I do not know who you are. I do not know what your position is. But I am sure that you can help. We all have the power to get informed, make smart choices and influence others. Everyone has some power.

Find a way. Not just for the rhino, a creature who has never asked for anything except to be left alone, but for all of us. Find a way to help.

Just remember: we do not have much time.

The Black Mambas are 2015 winners of the Champions of the Earth award, the UN's top environmental prize

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post, "What's Working: Sustainable Development Goals," in conjunction with the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The proposed set of milestones will be the subject of discussion at the UN General Assembly meeting on Sept. 25-27, 2015 in New York. The goals, which will replace the UN's Millennium Development Goals (2000-2015), cover 17 key areas of development -- including poverty, hunger, health, education, and gender equality, among many others. As part of The Huffington Post's commitment to solutions-oriented journalism, this What's Working SDG blog series will focus on one goal every weekday in September. This post addresses Goal 15.

To find out what you can do, visit here and here.