It’s hard to believe that we’re already two weeks into this ludicrous trip across Africa and have already experienced so much. From interrogation rooms in Johannesburg airport to Charlie driving his first anti poaching patrol, it’s been an interesting couple of weeks to say the least.
Our first evening in Balule was slightly restless. Having heard that Craig, the Warden, had woken up to a fully-grown male lion licking his bed the week before and that Will, the project manager of the Black Mambas, had caught a puff adder sneaking under his bed for a midnight surprise, we were slightly apprehensive as to what the evening would bring. However, luckily the night passed with little more than the odd hyena cackling in the bushes and Wadi routinely checking under his bed.
Our first day was all action. We accompanied Pieter on the early morning patrol of the perimeter fences and shadowed the Warden Craig in the afternoon. This involved digging trenches, filling in dirt roads and viewing some homemade fireworks via lighting the on site incinerator.
It was a fantastic introduction to the way in which Balule Nature Reserve is run. You arrive at any national park or game reserve expecting to see very little of the top brass but Craig was in the thick of it from the word go. Whether it be filling in the roads, digging trenches or generally mucking in with the volunteers and us.
Craig leads from the front and has an unprecedented determination to combat poaching. He brings a unique way of thinking to the table; one that contradicts many of the other arguments we have heard since arriving in SA.
The prevailing view we’ve come across is that trophy hunting is the only feasible way of ensuring a long-term future for Africa’s wildlife. Craig quite rightly points out the very difficult tension in sending locals to prison for bush meat poaching and allowing people from the Northern hemisphere to kill big five animals for a price. What message does that send to the local community?
Craig argues there is another way. One that sees local communities at the heart of providing a long term socially driven solution to the poaching crisis.
Tanget over! (not for long) That evening we attended a Presentation by Craig where he spoke about how his alternative vision was working through the Black Mamba Anti Poaching Unit.
The mambas are black, female and unarmed. Three things that couldn’t be less synonymous with anti poaching in Sub Saharan Africa. They have reduced snaring by 80% in Balule and play a vital role in changing perceptions within their communities about the value of wildlife.
Instead of just throwing money at the problem, which consequently doesn’t end up in the community, the Mambas create long term local buy in. During Craig’s eleven years in Balule, the price of armed security and other anti poaching services have rocketed and he believes that throwing money at “AK47s and German Shepards” is fuelling an industry not dedicated to actually preventing the crisis. This is the idea that there is a whole industry riding on the back of the rhino crisis.
Day 2 – The Mambas
The following day we were lucky enough to join the Black Mambas on their morning and evening patrols.
Our first patrol was with Joy, Yinsekiree, Proud and Shadu. Our aim was to get to the Mambas comfortable around us and we got off to a shaky start! Its very easy to ask questions that naturally lead to yes or no answers like ‘Is your job difficult’ ‘Yes’ ‘do people respect your work?’ ‘Yes’ ‘do you enjoy your work?’ ‘Yes’.
However, it didn’t take us long to realise we were going at things from the wrong direction. We needed to make ourselves and them more comfortable. The natural thing to do was tell them a bit about ourselves and this quite mad cycle expedition we’re doing. It allowed everyone to ease up, laugh a bit at our ridiculousness and get into the swing.
The rest of the morning flew by as we talked about a range of things: from the opposition the mambas faced when the project first started, to the pride their communities now have for their work. They also ran us through some of the more hairy moments they’ve had on night patrol; involving walking into a pride of lions sleeping!
The Mambas themselves are extremely proud of what they do and having battled with the criticism of a male dominated industry, they have proved everyone wrong and established themselves as an incredibly unique and effective anti poaching unit. Many of the Mambas are supporting families of up to 15 on their small income and they are very aware that their salary, like many others in the area, relies on the wildlife.
During the evening patrol, one of the girls was having a slight clutch nightmare which ended up in Charlie driving his first ever anti poaching patrol through a big five game reserve at 11:00pm during the full moon period. The Full Moon is the most feared time for the Mambas as the poachers are able to enter and exit the park using the light of the moon. This makes the process of spotting their torches much more difficult. Balule lost six rhinos in the previous full moon period but fortunately during our stay, the Mambas detected three incursions and managed to prevent every single one of them. I’m sure Charlie’s mad driving also contributed.
The mambas are incredible role models for the young boys and girls in the community and we all felt very lucky to have had the opportunity to speak to them and highlight some of the work they’re doing.
Day 3 -
Today we got an idea of the physical and mental challenges that the Mambas face. After another 5:00am start, we joined the Mambas on their daily 20km inspection of the fences. During the Mambas training, one of the key aspects is how to track animals and without knowing it, we spent the next 2 hours tracking a pride of lions on foot with unarmed Mambas as our only protection, bloody terrifying!
Over the past few days I have grown very fond of Balule and it’s incredibly sad to say goodbye. The whole team have made us feel very welcome and I have learnt a huge amount from them.
Things we’ve learnt
Cars are fast, bikes are slow.
Kilometres are more satisfying than miles.
Mosquito nets don’t prevent lions.
Africa’s not flat
Showering is not a priority.
Cars don’t protect you from elephants.
Cycling through Game Reserves is not advised.