The period of a woman in her twenties has been described as ‘a decade …made for mistakes and misfires’ where ‘the confusion, disappointment and ego bruising’ are part of becoming an adult. This decade affords no such luxuries for Leitah Mkhabela, who is a Supervisor to the Black Mambas All Female Anti-Poaching Unit. Based in Kruger National Park in South Africa, Leitah has 9 years field time under her belt, which is no small achievement for a woman who is still under 30 with a young child. Leitah aspired to be a teacher or a nurse when she was young, but a visit to the reserve, as part of her environmental education when at high school, helped to move her towards her chosen career. A career she now knows she will pursue for the rest of her life “I think I will do it for the rest of my life but maybe in different roles. I will still work in conservation but I will not be a Black Mamba, because we are getting old. Our eyes are getting old. We work in an environment which is very hot and we have to walk about 12km a day so cannot do the patrols for ever.” Its not just the physical hazards that she needs to consider, this is a dangerous occupation. “In the beginning it was difficult, I’m a village girl and suddenly I’m on a game reserve with lions and leopards, predators that can harm you. There’s also the possibility of encountering poachers. What if I don’t make it through the day? What if I get injured? What happens to my child and my family? It is hard as we know we are putting our lives on the line, but we love our job. We enjoy using our training against the poachers. It is difficult being remote and communicating with the patrols, especially when they need help, I have to keep in contact and find out where they are and then find someone to go out and assist or get them, this can be very stressful. When they are following poachers and they contact and say we are 30m away from the poachers, we can hear their voices and I know that poachers come with weapons that is very stressful. The worst thing is when I come across a poacher face to face, only to find that the poacher is someone known to me or from my village, will they threaten my mum or my child? That is very, very difficult. We’ve have gained so much knowledge over the years and know how to protect ourselves. We realised that animals need to have the right of way, we’ve learnt to read their body language. So now when we wake up, we have pride knowing we are doing the job of protecting the iconic animals of South Africa. We are women who have survived nine years where none of the Black Mambas have been injured by animals or by poachers. Many men didn’t believe we could do this but we keep coming back to work without seeing the carcasses of elephants or rhinos, and that is what we love the most. And who can blame them, women stepping up to save Africa’s giants has got to be one of the most satisfying jobs on the planet.

Tough as this life sounds, it’s not the only sacrifice Leitah and her teammates make. She is the mother of a young child and works on 21 day runs with 10 days at home before starting another 21-day stint for the Mambas. What’s remarkable is the committed tone in which she discusses this sacrifice “It is very difficult but we love our job. We will never get enough of our families but we have to speak for the animals, we have to share the love that we have for our families with the animals.” So how is to spend so much time with your teammates “we are like a 2nd family as we spend more time with each other than our own families. We rely on each other, when I need to go out with someone, I have to trust them. We are women with a strong team who support and motivate each other. It’s not everyone for themselves. We have to make sure we are safe, as we are all women we know each other’s challenges, so if someone has a period and can’t do the morning walk, we understand. Or if a woman comes to me and says I have a message from home someone is sick I understand this pressure as well. Not that working with a man is bad but going to a man to talk about periods but he doesn’t always understand. It is very easy to understand each other, we also have pregnant women, it is an experience and it can be difficult. It can be nice as we look after each other. It’s one of the things I enjoy being together, even though we some do have cat fights but we are grown women so we get over it.”

The Black Mamba’s has been hugely successful, not just reducing poaching incidents but also in engaging with the local community and schools. The reality is conservation can’t work without community buy in, until local people can see the value of wildlife many antipoaching projects are doomed to failure. Leitah’s team addresses this with the Bush Baby project “we have 1,500 kids in 10 different rural villages, teaching them about the environment and how we need to protect the animals for our futures. By doing this we are setting an example to the community so that they know their kid’s future is the animals, so the community will look to protect the reserve and they understand that they benefit from the reserve.” This was no more necessary when the tourism industry was nearly decimated during the global pandemic, again the Black Mamba’s looked after their communities “During the pandemic we delivered food parcels, so many people had lost their jobs, they had no salaries, even rangers. So, we showed the community if we look after the wildlife, we can use the benefit of tourism can look after them as well. If we continue looking after animals, we are going to save tourism.”

But despite all the success of the Black Mamba’s, Leitah is not complacent and still have worries for the future “My fear is killing the rhino continues and what happens if they kill all the rhino? They will move on to another animal. I worry for the next generation, because they will suffer, they want to have careers in nature conservation that will be difficult. They won’t know so many of the iconic animals of South Africa. They will lose a lot of knowledge and they will lose careers in conservation. We have lost so many careers already and have limited options, I fear that the poachers will take many animals and tourism will decline. We have seen it during the pandemic and tourism stopped and so many people couldn’t provide for themselves and this could happen to the next generation.”

Maybe I’m biased, as I’m bowled over by the strength, bravery and maturity of this young woman, but I am hopeful that animal warriors like the Black Mamba’s will continue to be successful in protecting our precious wildlife.

Finally, what is Leitah’s favourite animal? No surprise “the rhino”