Anti-poaching 'Black Mambas' team up with virtual rangers

The all-female anti-poaching unit called Black Mambas has been protecting South Africa's wildlife since 2013.

Now, they have a new ally: tens of thousands of “virtual rangers” worldwide

keeping an eye on the animals via camera phones.

Black Mamba ranger Leitah Mkhabela.

(SOUNDBITE) (English) BLACK MAMBA RANGER, LEITAH MKHABELA, SAYING: "We are dealing with poachers that are professional people. They've been to the army and they know how to use weapons and we know nothing about that. And people who can walk come inside the reserve, kill a rhino in five minutes and they're out. So, this is a big change to us but it's a change that we want to bring out to the people."

Animal reserves across Africa have had to cut back on anti-poaching patrols due to lulls in tourism drying up funding.

One in five rangers has been laid off globally over the past year, according to World Wildlife Fund International.

To combat this, the Balule Nature Reserve has teamed up with handset manufacturer Samsung and tech pioneer Africam to supplement staff with eyes and ears online.

Over 55,000 people have become virtual rangers since the project – Wildlife Watch, went live in March 2021.

They help track the “big five” of Balule: rhino, lion, leopard, elephant, and buffalo.

{Black Mamba Ranger, Leitah Mkhabela} "People are not able to come in and see the animals. But we can use the cameras to remind them that the animals are still there, and that they need you to watch out for them."

Mkhabela and her colleagues use the same model of phone for communication and to capture images of suspicious activity during patrols, while other handsets have been installed to monitor perimeter fences.

Black Mamba unit founder, Craig Spencer…

(SOUNDBITE) (English) FOUNDER, BLACK MAMBA ANTI-POACHING UNIT, CRAIG SPENCER, SAYING: "Mambas can only be effective if they can use their senses because we don't arm them. We rely on their eyes and their ears and their various other senses. Unfortunately, a human being hasn't evolved to be able to see at night and to see things as quickly and that kind of thing. It's what I call 'human bias'. I can only cover certain sections of the park at certain times of the day or night. I need technology to fill the gaps."

And the system seems to be working.

Viewers of the park’s streaming service have reported hearing gunshots, signaling the possibility of poachers, and alerted rangers about trapped animals needing rescue.