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Black Mambas’ ranks are filled predominantly by women. Photo: Black Mambas Anti-Poaching Unit

Poaching remains the most glaring threat to South Africa's iconic beasts, particularly rhinos and elephants, because of the high value placed on their horns and tusks.

Demand is so high that the market is driven by sophisticated organized-crime syndicates, while enforcement agencies often find themselves underfunded, ill-equipped and outmanned.

But there are a few bright spots, among them the mostly-female Black Mamba Anti-Poaching Unit, which patrols the Balule Private Game Reserve within Kruger National Park in South Africa.

Nighttime listening posts like this one on a hill in the south of the reserve are critical to their mission, visual policing and early detaction. Collette Ngobeni holds the spotlight bythe light of the full moon. The ladies of the first all female Anti-Poaching Unit in Africa, on patrol, making roadblocks and sitting in listening posts at night in Balule Private Nature Reserve.

Black Mambas at a nighttime listening post. Photo: Jeffrey Barbee/Alliance Earth

This week the Black Mambas were awarded the U.N.'s top environmental prize, the Champions of the Earth award, in recognition of the group's "rapid and impressive impact" on combating poaching and for its bravery in the face of danger.

"Their many successes are a result of their impressive courage and determination to make a difference in their community," Achim Steiner, executive director of the U.N. Environmental Programme, said in a news release. "The Black Mambas are an inspiration not only locally, but across the world to all those working to eliminate the scourge of the illegal wildlife trade."

The Black Mambas were formed in 2013 and have since arrested six poachers, a low number underscoring the value of their presence within the reserve.

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Rhinos are being poached at a record pace in South Africa, but Balule Private Game Reserve is a haven of sorts thanks to the Black Mambas’ efforts. Photo: Via Kruger National Park, which is next to Balule

The group has reduced snaring, the most common form of poaching, by 76 percent. It has removed more than 1,000 snares and has snuffed out five poachers' camps and bush-meat kitchens, where poached game is partially processed.

Rhinos are South Africa's most imperiled beasts, and Kruger National Park is the epicenter of rhino poaching, with more than 540 rhinos having already been killed illegally in Kruger in 2015.

But rhino poaching is virtually nonexistent in Balule thanks to the efforts of the Black Mambas, who hail from surrounding communities.

Collette Ngobeni prefers doing fence patrols, she says, "if I do the fence patrol I know everything about what is happening inside our park". The ladies of the first all female Anti-Poaching Unit in Africa, on patrol, making roadblocks and sitting in listening posts at night in Balule Private Nature Reserve.

Collette Ngobeni on fence patrol for the Black Mambas. Photo: Jeff Barbee/Alliance Earth

Balule has thus become a buffer zone of sorts — a haven for rhinos and other large animals sought by poachers.

"With every rhino saved, the Black Mambas demonstrate that action on a local level is critical to achieving global sustainability and equity," Steiner said.

Leitika Mkhabela, a Black Mamba ranger, was emphatic about the pride she takes in helping to keep the animals safe.

"I am not afraid; I know what I am doing and I know why I am doing it," she said. "If you see the poachers you tell them not to try, tell them that we are here and it is they who are in danger."

She added, "Animals deserve to live; they have a right to live. Do your part. When demand ends, the killing will end. Say yes to life. Say no to illegal rhino horn and elephant ivory."

More than 1,200 rhinos were poached last year in South Africa, which boasts the world's largest population of rhinos (about 23,000). Nearly 800 rhinos have been poached already this year.

Demand for rhino horn is greatest in Vietnam and China.

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