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[Exclusive] Rolling with the Black Mambas

Photographer Julia Gunther spent a week with Africa's premiere all-female poacher fighters.

Wake up at exactly five in the morning, put on your worn combat boots and fatigues, jump in the jeep with your comrades, and hit the sand. You're on patrol with Africa's premiere all-female anti-poaching unit: the Black Mambas. Founded in 2013, the 23-woman strong team patrols a 250 square mile area of the Balule Nature Reserve in South Africa. This year they were named Champions of the Earth by the United Nations "For outstanding courage in fighting the illegal wildlife trade at community level." German photographer and filmmaker Julia Gunther recently embedded herself with the group to capture their daily lives on film for her most recent addition to a series called Proud Women of Africa.

"My goal is to try and change the stereotypical image the 'developed' world has of women in Africa," Gunther explains to The Creators Project. "The women I photograph are proud of their lives and of who they are. They have dreams, and they are tired of being seen as victims."

Since 2008, she's been documenting the stories of women who stand up to oppression, adversity, and horror. She patrolled with the the Black Mambas as they dismantled snares and searched the savannah for poachers, particularly on bright nights that are optimal for illegal hunting. "I wanted to follow the Black Mambas to capture their daily lives," she says. "That meant doing everything they did. I got up with them at five AM, went on foot patrols with them, or joined them on one of the open roof jeeps."

Watch: Broadly visits Kenya's women-only village:

In a post-Cecil world, where the illegal wildlife trade is estimated at about $10 billion, Gunther's photos not only highlight the powerful role women are increasingly taking in modern Africa, but substantially helping the boots on the ground that are fighting the global misery market. 

We spoke to Julia Gunther about spending time with the Black Mambas, getting to know their stories, and why she decided to tell stories of female empowerment in Africa.

The Creators Project: How did you come into contact with the Black Mambas?

Julia Gunther: I’ve been working on a long term project called  Proud Women of Africa, for which I document the lives of different women in Africa. During my research I came across an article about the Black Mambas. As soon as I’d read it I knew I’d found my next subject. 

How did you explain your ongoing project documenting women in Africa to them?

I explained the project to the Mambas primarily by showing them examples of some of the other women that I’ve photographed for Proud Women of Africa, and by discussing my plans with them in detail. That way they could get a good idea of the kind of pictures I wanted to take. 

What was the shoot like? 

I wanted to follow the Black Mambas to capture their daily lives. That meant doing everything they did. I got up with them at five AM, went on foot patrols with them, or joined them on one of the open roof jeeps. The patrols took around six to seven hours, and I would try to capture as much as possible during that time: checking fences for holes, finding and removing snares, etc. Alternatively we would go out for night patrols as it was the full moon period. During full moon, the Black Mambas are on high alert. This is the time when the poachers are most active. 

Each black mamba I met was different in their approach towards me and the camera. Some enjoyed the attention more than others, some were first a little suspicious, but everyone warmed up to me quite quickly. So I guess they reacted like anyone else in the world.

Tell me about a few of the women.

I joined Joy and Felicia on a 16km [10-mile] patrol of the perimeter fence on my first day at the Black Mamba camp. Both have been trained by Protrack—an organization that teaches anti poaching skills and tracking. They are on the lookout for both human and animal tracks and to see if the fence has been tampered with in any way, or if there is a sign that poachers might have entered the reserve. They check the cameras, and that the electric current has not been disrupted to the fence.

Every hour they must check in with the control room at base camp with what their location is, and if there is any situation to report.

Joy, 24, is quiet, she seems a bit reserved at first. The Mambas have been exposed to a lot of media attention over the last year and at seven AM no one wants to have a camera and flash straight in their faces. Joy is proud of being a Mamba and happy to be saving nature for the next generation. Eventually though, she wants to be a nurse. Felicia, 27, never fully warmed up to me but accepted my presence and took care of me. She wants to study Nature Conservation to save animals. She is one of the first of the Black Mambas and will try to teach her children about nature.

On my third day I was walking along with Yenzekile and Proud. When I told Proud that my project is called Proud Women of Africa she thought I’m crazy... I seem to get that often. I loved the fact that I was patrolling with Proud as being a proud woman for my project PWOA. Proud is 25, married with a five-year-old old daughter and has been a Black Mamba since 2014. She became a BM because she loves nature and hopes to stop the killing of rhinos and elephants. Proud said: “When I am doing this, I am protecting it. Because I want my child and the next generation to know the rhino and the elephant and all the other animals. I would like to be a pilot, and maybe fly people over the reserves.”

Yenzekile, 23, wants to further her career. She went to Timbivati wildlife school to learn about nature and heard about the Black Mambas. She started as a Black Mamba in 2013 on the first intake. She would like to remain a Black Mamba until 2020 at which time she would like to be a paramedic and also a ranger. She particularly likes night patrols. On both of my night patrols Yenzekile was there with me.

Did you run into any poachers while traveling with them? 

Thankfully we did not run into any poachers. But I saw plenty of them on the footage captured by the camera traps throughout the reserve. The Black Mambas are taught to report poacher activity to the ProTrack Rangers (who are armed) and try not to confront a poacher themselves. They report their location and the situation on the ground.

The Black Mambas patrol along the fences, their spotlights scanning the road ahead, the bushes and the trees looking for poachers. Roadblocks are set up and people politely questioned. Observation points are established, where the women sit quietly, listening for gunshots, keeping a keen lookout for movement, flashlights, or irregular sounds and movements in the bush.

What started you on your The Proud Women of Africa project? 

I was working at a production company in Cape Town in 2008. I had not been to Cape Town before and decided to take a year out of my Amsterdam film working life and discover the world a little. 

While working in Cape Town I met Philipa, and we immediately became friends. Shortly after we met she was diagnosed with breast cancer and together we decided to document her illness, with the idea of showing the world what she had gone through once she’d recovered. Sadly though, Philipa died in February 2012, after the cancer spread to her brain. 

This series of images became the first part of Proud Women of Africa. Philipa was proud of who she was, and never let her illness define her. I was struck by Philipa’s determination and tenacity during her battle against cancer, and subsequently decided to look for other women in Africa who lived life with the same pride.

During my frequent trips to Cape Town to be at Philipa's side and to document her fight against cancer, I also started documenting another friend of mine called Ruth. Ruth lives in a township called Manenberg, and was raped by an employee at the local pool when she was 14 years old. Now a mother, she's the first-in-command of her church brigade and takes pride in her role as a youth worker, aside from working full time at the same production company I used to work at. This series of images became the second instalment of Proud Women of AfricaRuthy Goes to Church.

My goal is to try and change the stereotypical image the "developed" world has of women in Africa. The women I photograph are proud of their lives and of who they are. They have dreams, and they are tired of being seen as victims.

What have you learned about the continent that your audience might not expect?

That hope exists in places we think are lost.

What's next for The Proud Women of Africa

PWOA is still ongoing, and I’m starting to look into where I could go next. I have some initial ideas, but I’d like to pin them down a little more before I talk about them publicly. But, obviously it will be somewhere in Africa and about women.

What about after that?

Thanks to PWOA I’ve learnt that what I enjoy most is giving a voice to people who deserve it, through my photographs. So I want to continue to focus on this. There are so many people around the world who deserve to be heard, and who are just as proud and strong as the PWOA. Their stories are the ones I’d like to continue to tell.

What do you want people to take away from your Black Mambas series?

The Black Mambas need support to continue their anti-poaching efforts. They are heavily dependant on donations and sponsorships from the local and international community. Items such as boots and uniforms are in short supply and need to be replenished regularly. Tires are generally second hand. Fuel is expensive and vital for daily activities. 

Donations can be made through their website www.blackmambas.org.

Keep up with Julia Gunther's work on her website.

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