Safari with Africa’s all-female anti-poaching force the ‘Black Mambas’

The woman in camo and combat boots disappears into the bush. She’s armed with a roll of toilet paper. “Bring it back or burn it,” a man shouts after her. The rule here in Greater Kruger National Park is pack it in, pack it out. 

When Craig Spencer founded the Black Mambas in 2013, people thought he was high. A female anti-poaching unit was unheard of, especially in patriarchal South Africa. “Even our families were like ‘How can they do a man’s job?’ ” explains a sergeant named Felicia.

Sadly, the Mambas weren’t taken seriously until 2015, when they were named Champions of the Earth, the United Nations’ top environmental honor. 

Since inception, the Mambas have identified and destroyed dozens of poacher camps and bushmeat kitchens. Poaching within the park is down 76%. Currently, 26 Black Mambas are active. All but one, a soft-spoken man they call “Brother,” are female. Now, thanks to a new partnership with Ker & Downey Africa, safari-goers like me can meet the world’s first predominantly female wildlife security unit. (The 13-day conservation-themed itinerary starts at $8,000;

The team I’m with has had a busy morning. After inspecting the park fence — which poachers cut and crawl through — they found nine snares capable of trapping everything from antelope to elephants. (Poachers finish off their catch with leftover rifles from the civil war in neighboring Mozambique.) Black rhino horn is the black-market Holy Grail. Believing it can cure cancer, Chinese buyers shell out up to $300,000.  

A group shot of the Mambas and founder Craig Spencer.
Hiss-toric: Craig Spencer (third from left) founded the anti-poaching snake squad in 2013.
Katie Jackson

A shot of the writer and the male Mamba "Brother" on patrol.
“Brother”-ly love: The author on patrol with the group’s sole male member.
Katie Jackson

A Mamba holds p a patch of the Mambas' logo.
Don’t tread on she: The formidable female force’s fittingly fierce flag.
Katie Jackson

 “We don’t want our kids to live in a world where there are no rhinos,” said a Mamba named Lerato. Most of the Mambas are mothers. While deployed they live in the bush, away from their families. Still, there are always kids around. In 2015 the Mambas founded Bush Babies ( to educate schools about conservation.

“We want kids to go home and tell their uncles a live rhino is worth more than a dead rhino,” a Mamba named Jody explained after pointing out a set of rhino tracks.

We’re performing a sweep: looking for cigarette butts, footprints and other evidence poachers are active in the area. Another Mamba unit is at the park gate, inspecting every vehicle that leaves. Their trained K-9s can detect firearms and animal parts.

Black Mambas handle a snare.
Shut your trap: Mambas decommission a snare, one of the nastier weapons poachers use to catch even elephants.
Katie Jackson

Skulls of poached rhinos.
Skull of the hard knocks: Cranial remains of tragically poached rhinos.
Derius Erasmus/

The poachers use dogs, too. Asked if they’re like Soldier — Spencer’s intimidating Belgian Malinois I’m afraid to make eye contact with — a Mamba laughs and says, “No, they have village dogs,” laughs a Mamba. “They can’t afford European dogs.”

Most poachers can’t afford to put food on the table for themselves, let alone for pets. Since the pandemic started, poaching is on the rise.

“They don’t have jobs” a Mamba explains about the locals. “This person is not a rhino poacher, but I can’t say that he will not poach a rhino eventually.”

The Mambas recently took up gardening, often handing out food to local communities. Eventually, they’ll sell produce to Pondoro Game Lodge ( where I’m staying. They desperately need money. I notice their two-seater truck, which ferries five women, is missing mirrors and seat padding. It’s also dangerously low on fuel.  

“Sometimes it breaks down,” said a frustrated Mamba. “We have to push it during night patrol when there are lions roaming around.” In life-and-death situations like these the ladies have to decide if they’re going to get testy or work together. “We have catfights,” Felicia admits. Still, guns are never drawn.

Mambas on patrol at night.
Ladies of the night: No rest for the weary Mambas on after-dark patrol.
Ilan Godfrey/Getty X Lumix Project

A squad of Mambas on patrol.
Camo-floss: The Mambas may be gun-less, but they’re no less ferocious than a proper army.
Julia Gunther

In fact, the Black Mambas don’t even carry guns. Armed with just handcuffs, pepper spray and yes, toilet paper, they’re putting a serious dent in poaching. Their boots-on-the-ground approach is modeled after former NYC Mayor Rudy Guliani’s broken windows theory. 

“We’re not here for war,” said Jody. “If poachers saw us with guns they’ll want to fight. We’re just here to say, ‘Guys, we can see you.’ ”