Co-authored by Nick Schonfeld.
For the past 2 years, as part of my Proud Women of Africa project, I have been documenting the work of the Black Mambas: an all-female, anti-poaching unit based in Balule Nature Reserve. When I first visited them in 2015, I spent a week in the field, on day patrols, and during a full moon, when poachers are at their most active. It was exciting to be on the front line with these amazing women, to see what they see as they searched the brush with their torches. To walk the fences, checking for snares and holes. But I also knew that this was only part of the story. I saw that poaching is being fought on many fronts, an that education is perhaps the most effective form of prevention.
Earlier this year, I returned to Balule to document one of the Mambas’s lesser known anti-poaching efforts: the Bush Babies Environmental Education Program. Founded in 2015, Bush Babies is an initiative that aims to create an environmentally literate community which understands the inherent value of wildlife, rather than seeing it as a source of income. Starting with 4 schools, Bush Babies has grown significantly, and now runs programs in 10 local primary schools in the communities surrounding the Greater Kruger National Park.
Each week Lewyn Maefala, the program’s founder and sole employee, teaches more than 970 students about the importance of conserving the environment for future generations. Classes last between one and two hours, and cover a range of topics, including conservation and ecology, which she has created specifically for the children.
As the Bush Babies education officer, Lewyn teaches her students about basic ecology and the various mammals, reptiles, birds and insects that live in the area. Then moves on to poaching after which she introduces the Black Mambas and their work. Due to a lack of resources, her only help comes from a Black Mamba scout, who helps explain the effects of poaching to the children as well as introducing the children to the concept of discipline.
The hope is, that by introducing the idea of wildlife having an intrinsic value, other than as sustenance or a commodity, the Bush Babies program can prevent the next generation from becoming poachers. It’s an uphill battle, as the short term benefits of poaching (money or food) are sorely sought after in this part of South Africa, but the Bush Babies are slowly gaining ground. You can see it in the faces of the children as they listen to Lewyn describe the life cycle of the dung beetle, or as Nkateko Mzimba, one of the Black Mamba scouts talks about how much a rhino weighs. The first seeds of respect for Mother Earth are being planted.