"I am strong. I am a woman. And I bite like a Mamba!" 22-year-old Leitah, pictured above, told photographer Julia Gunther.
Leitah is a proud member of the Black Mamba Anti-Poaching Unit, stationed on and around the Balule Nature Reserve in South Africa, located near the Kruger Reserve, home to the critically endangered black rhino as well as the endangered white rhino. Along with 23 other women and two men, Leitah spends 21 days a month patrolling the reserve, teaching locals about wilderness preservation, and keeping an eye out for poaching activities.
Since 2008, Berlin-born photographer Gunther has been immersed in a personal project she calls "Proud Women of Africa," in which she documents the everyday lives of extraordinary women. "Women who have fought, survived, overcome or simply ignored the obstacles that life has thrown at them," Gunther specified in an email to The Huffington Post. "[They] never gave up. All of the women in my pictures have suffered in some way: they’ve been ostracized by society, are desperately poor, or have experienced terrible injustice. But they are also all still proud. Proud of who they are, of their lives and the love they represent."
Prior to learning about the mantra of the Black Mambas, Gunther's camera had chronicled everyday heroines including documented nurses, members of church marching bands, transgender women, lesbian activists and a woman fighting cancer. "When I heard about the Black Mamba Anti-Poaching Unit at the beginning of this year I knew I had found the sixth part of this project," Gunther said. Inspired by their tenacity and spirit, Gunther spent five days with these women, observing their hard work and understanding their motivations.
Gunther captures the unarmed women patrollers who protect legendary wildlife in the region, especially the rhinoceroses, whose horns are now worth thousands on the black market. Mambas keep on the lookout for snares -- wires fashioned into loops and fixed to a fence -- that trap animals when they step into it and tighten as they attempt to move away. It's a notoriously cruel mode of killing.
The Mambas are committed to tracking down snares before animals become victims. "With a mix of lipstick, boots and camouflage fatigues, these women are watching, waiting, walking, constantly on the lookout for early evidence of poacher activity," Gunther continued. "They are a formidable and highly effective anti-poaching task team that is trying to defend and protect South Africa’s wildlife heritage against poaching."
In South Africa, the phrase "the Big Five" often refers to lions, leopards, rhinos, buffalo and elephants, the most coveted wildlife in the region. Protection of these species frequently falls into the hands of men; the Mambas are one of the rare instances a position of such importance and power would be delegated to women.
"Each [Mamba] has a story, a dream and a vision for the future," Gunther explained. "Each has a family to support, a community to educate. Funds are scarce, yet they are passionate and determined. For some, they are the only breadwinners, feeding their families on little wages. For others this is a hopeful step towards furthering their careers. For all of them, the love for nature and its conservation runs deep. Their ethos is to protect this heritage of wildlife."
Since the unit's inception in 2013, conditions have radically improved for endangered rhinos throughout the area. The number of snaring and illegal bush-meat incidents have reduced by 75 percent, nine poacher incursions were detected and the offenders were subsequently arrested. Most impressively, according to the United Nations, not a single rhino has been poached in ten months, while other reserves have lost around two dozen. The Mambas efforts were recently recognized by the United Nations who awarded them the much-deserved 2015 Champion of the Earth Award.
Through her work, Gunther aims to spread the stirring tale of the Black Mambas far and wide. "I hope to make people aware of what these women are risking and doing for all of us," she said. "They are trying to protect animals that a few generations after us might only be able to admire in a zoo."
Gunther acknowledges that the success of the Black Mamba Unit depends on circumstances that extend beyond their bravery and enthusiasm. They need our help, in the forms of fuel and mechanics, staff and uniforms, airtime and food. "But more that anything," Gunther concluded, "they need our attention and respect."
Learn more about the Black Mamba Unit and how you can get involved by visiting their website. In the meantime, see the dazzling details of their daily lives in the images below, with captions provided by Gunther and her subjects.
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