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Feb 14, 2018

A (Mostly) Smooth Rolling Start

Survey Team in The Field, with 3 Mambas
Survey Team in The Field, with 3 Mambas

Well, we’ve now officially been here in South Africa for just a bit over one week, and I cannot believe how much we have been able to accomplish in this relatively short time! Amazingly, we have completed all the interviews for two of the four projects that we had planned to complete while here. I could not be prouder of my research team, or more grateful to our wonderful collaborators at Transfrontier Africa and the Black Mambas.

The all-woman Black Mambas Anti-Poaching Unit are a core part of Transfrontier Africa’s efforts to conserve wildlife. The Mambas are the reason why we are here, as we hope to evaluate the social impacts of this group of path-breaking conservationists on the communities in which they work, on the children that they are educating, and on the women themselves.

Having the opportunity to meet and interview all of them in one week is more inspirational than I had expected. I knew that they would be amazing, but I was not completely ready for the degree to which that is true. As our insightful Director of Animal Programs RoxAnna Breitigan says, to a person, they are real superheroes, living Wonder Women.

The Mambas patrol five different parcels of the Balule Nature Reserve, which is directly connected to the global treasure of Kruger National Park. The answers of each team to our queries has been noticeably different from the others, which all sharing core values and perspectives. Interestingly, the group-level differences by parcel may reveal aspects of the emergent cultures in their home communities as well.

Our initial results clearly indicate that the Black Mamba program has fundamentally transformed how the women view themselves, as well as what they think women are capable of doing. In a culture that is exceptionally male-dominated, this is transformative in many ways. The women are the household breadwinners in the communities in which they live. They are the educators and conservation advocates, and they are becoming community leaders. We look forward to exploring these last points when we start our interviews with people in their communities next week.

The second big project that we’ve been able to complete is to interview all the staff of Transfrontier Africa. We are particularly interested about their thoughts and perceptions of the Mambas and how the program could be improved. All are incredibly proud of the education and outreach work that the Mambas are doing, but all wanted to improve the early detection and enforcement efforts against poachers on the grounds. To a person, the staff of TA are acutely proud of the Black Mamba program, and are particularly proud of how the women have transformed into environmental leaders. It is clear that the Mamba program is one that works, even from the perspective of the organization’s insiders – a group of people who tend to be the most knowledgeable and thus critical.

These great successes were accomplished, despite the dozens of mechanical challenges that we have experienced. The awesome Land Rovers that the kind people of Transfrontier Africa have provided us can go ANYWHERE, and I know, as I have tested it repeatedly (and not just because I’ve gotten lost repeatedly)! However, that is only true as long as you have tires that work and an engine that starts.

A few nights ago, I had a blowout late at night, sending tire treads flying all across the road. I was traveling by myself back to camp, late at night, and in an area without cell signal. While standing on the side of the road, in complete blackness, with many bumps in the night around me, and completely alone, I should have panicked or felt unsafe. However, the brilliant stars overhead and knowledge of the amazing African wildlife all around me filled me with such joy that I did not succumb to panic.

Plus, before I was able to succumb, the Mambas who were out on patrol that night happened by just a few minutes after I broke down (thanks Felicia and Carol)! They initiated a chain of action that led to my friends from TA showing up with the functioning spare tire that my car lacked. They sprang from their car, changed the tire like they were an Indy pit crew, and we drove back to camp and hoisted many drinks to the goodness of Africa and her wonderful people.

Black Mambas from Grietjie After Interviews
Black Mambas from Grietjie After Interviews
Jan 22, 2018

And We Are Off!

A lovely and gigantic Acacia on the African Plains
A lovely and gigantic Acacia on the African Plains

The vervet monkeys woke me again today. They are simultaneously adorable and infuriating, inquisitive and terrified, quiet and racket making – a bundle of contradictions, but that is also the nature of doing conservation work in Africa.

I am here in South Africa for five weeks to lead a team of researchers from California State University San Marcos, Helping Rhinos, and The Living Desert to evaluate the social impact of what has become one of the bright points of light in conservation: The all-female Black Mambas Anti-Poaching Unit. The Mambas work in the Greater Kruger National Park ecosystem, and specifically in Balule Game Reserve.

This intrepid group of women has reduced poaching of the protected large mammals in the 200 square miles (52,000 hectares) corner of Africa that they patrol. They do this while unarmed, and female in a society that is so gendered that they are viewed suspiciously if they drive a car, learn how to read, or wear military fatigues, let alone dare to tell men not to kills Africa’s endangered wildlife. Given that all of these are essential components of being a Black Mamba, these women have broken many new paths to the future of conservation on this amazing continent.

Their impact on reducing poaching is almost unmatched. Irrespective of how you document things, the impact that they have had is immense in that annually they have reduced poaching through wire snare traps by a minimum of 76%. Even more impressively, they have cut the numbers of rhinos killed by half – and these animals are unfortunately the exorbitantly big money item for the crime syndicates that poach them.

Poaching in Africa has a long and bloody history, one mired in colonialism, and in South Africa in Apartheid. Whites came to South Africa, disenfranchised the local people, pushed them off the land, and claimed all the wildlife in these new protected areas as their own. As such, many non-white Africans view the protected areas where most of South Africa’s wildlife exists as Sherwood Forest. In this analogy, poachers become the good guys, the Robin Hoods, stealing from the rich to give to the poor.

Of course the reality is quite different. Poaching an unsustainable business model and the wildlife here are rapidly dwindling, with rhinos and elephants leading the way down the spiral. The bloody paroxysm of poaching of the last decade has been sparked by increasing affluence in Asia, which has spiked the demand for the products of poaching like rhino horn and elephant ivory. Feeding this demand is ultimately shortsighted for local people. If it continues, there will be no large animals here and no one will make any money off the wildlife.

Tourism to see these amazing large animals alive is a significant source of income for South Africa, generating more revenue than all the numerous gold mines in the country. Moreover, this revenue stream is an income source that keeps on giving for the local economy and people. A single rhino can make up to 10 times as much alive over its lifetime than when poached for its horn.

Helping to change the perceived value of live animals in the local communities is approximately half of what the Black Mambas Anti-Poaching Unit does via community work – and this is why we are here, to assess their social impact. We want to test the hypotheses that the Black Mamba program changes several things: 1. That the women themselves are changed for the better in many ways, 2. That their community work has decreased support for poachers and poaching, and 3. That the participating children in the numerous Black Mamba education programs also have decreased support for poachers and poaching.

We have preliminary anecdotal data that supports these hypotheses, but we need real data to test them and today is our first day of data collection. Maybe the vervet monkeys knew this as well, and were as excited by our work as I was. After all, they are among the dozens of other species that benefit by the work of the Black Mambas Anti-Poaching Unit.

Or, maybe I am reading too much into their early morning racket making. In any case, please keep your fingers crossed and send good data collecting mojo along!

Our first elephant herd
Our first elephant herd
Two star-crossed giraffe lovers
Two star-crossed giraffe lovers
Dec 11, 2017

We are on the way!

Helping Rhinos & Black Mambas: Assessing education
Helping Rhinos & Black Mambas: Assessing education

Greetings all!

Thanks to your awesome support, we have been able to make great progress preparing to assess the impact of the Black Mamba Anti-Poaching Unit early next year! This is a complicated and challenging task, but one that we are honored to be able to provide.

Our goals are many and include determining the following:

  • The degree to which the presence and actions of the Black Mambas have decreased the receptivity to poaching and poachers among local people in the surrounding communities where the Mambas live
  • Whether local people see the amazing wildlife as their natural heritage, rather than the legacy of past colonialism
  • Whether there are changes among the Mambas themselves in self-esteem, self-efficacy, and pride
  • How effecitve the Bush Babies education program are at increasing conservaiton knowledge and likelihood to act among the thousands of school children that they teach annually

A team of three social science researchers will be onsite working with five local trained surveyors who can speak the local languages from 9 January to 9 February 2018, and they cannot wait to begin. The surveys will have been reviewed by the California State University San Marcos IRB to ensure participant safety and compliance with the best standards in social science research. 

In addition, Helping Rhinos will be partnering with Western Kentucky University to integrate our work with their analysis of the institutional and organizational psychology of the Black Mambas program as a whole to create a case study. This in-depth case study will allow other locations to learn how to begin an anti-poaching unit like the Black Mambas in their nature reserves. 

We are honored and grateful for all the help and support that you all have provided (and many you of continue to provide). We will keep you posted as our field work proceeds early next year!

Thank you for your kindness!

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