A full moon rose over the Balulue Nature Reserve, a sanctuary near one of South Africa's most famous wildlife parks. Armed with her camera, photographer Julia Gunther
snaked her way through the high grass. But she wasn't trying to capture one of the reserve's lions, rhinos, or elephants in her lens: Gunther was on the hunt for the Black Mambas.
Decked out in camouflage and combat boots, South Africa's all-female anti-poaching squad has a tall order: to stop the poachers who are killing some of the rarest and most endangered animals in the world. The poaching of rhinos alone has increased 9,300% over the past eight years, according to the Mambas, and lions, elephants, and pangolins
(little, scaly creatures that resemble anteaters) are also critically threatened. Known as the "big five," the animal species that are most often hunted for sport are the lion, leopard, rhino, elephant, and Cape buffalo.
"South Africa is literally being stripped of its natural heritage, plus the poachers keep adapting," Gunther told Refinery29. "If authorities ramp up their checks on the ivory or rhino horn trade, the poachers simply switch to lions."
These renewed poaching efforts are partly fueled by demand from elites in Asia for ivory and the desire of hunters to keep lion heads as hunting trophies
, as well as a growing appetite for pangolin meat
in China and Vietnam.
Faced with the daunting mission of thwarting heavily armed poachers, some were initially skeptical about how effective a squad of unarmed women could be. But the Mambas have reduced
snaring and poisoning by 73% in the past two years alone, and destroyed 10 poachers' camps. Gunther said she was immediately drawn to their story — so she laced up her boots and followed along. Ahead, the Mambas share their stories with Refinery29.
To sponsor one of the Black Mambas or help their anti-poaching and environmental education efforts, you can donate here
Photo caption: Felicia, 27 (left), wants to study nature conservation and will teach her children about the Earth's resources. Joy, 24, would like to save money to become a nurse and to teach her community about nature.