In 2016, filmmaker Dan Sadgrove went to South Africa to visit the world’s first all-female anti-poaching unit, The Black Mambas, who operate in the Balule Nature Reserve.
Last month, Sadgrove released the short documentary film he made about The Black Mambas, called “The Rhino Guardians.”
“Coming from disadvantaged communities and breaking strong patriarchal tradition, these courageous women focus on eliminating illegal wildlife trade through conservation, education and the protection of wildlife, helping to ensure the long term survival of threatened and endangered species in the area,” Sadgrove writes on the film’s website.
The Black Mambas patrol up to 20 kilometers every day. They look for poachers, wire snares, and break-ins along the fence line protecting the reserve. Their lives are constantly at risk from poachers as well as the wildlife they protect, but they go about their patrols unarmed.
“Our main objective is the protection of wildlife but we also strive to create a strong bond and educate the communities that live on the boundaries of Balule and the Greater Kruger Park to the benefits of saving their natural heritage,” The Black Mambas say on their website. “It is our belief that the war on poaching will not be won with guns and bullets, but through the local communities and education.”
South Africa, home to as much as 80 percent of the world’s rhino population, is considered ground zero for rhino poaching in Africa. 1,175 rhinos were illegally killed in the country in 2015, which actually represents a small drop from the 1,215 rhinos killed in South Africa in 2014.
Mongabay spoke with Dan Sadgrove about the impetus for the film, his experience going on patrol with The Black Mambas, and why the film is about much more than rhino conservation.
Mongabay: Can you give us a bit of background on The Black Mambas and how you first came to be interested in telling their story?
Dan Sadgrove: The Black Mambas are an anti-poaching unit operating in the Balule Game Reserve in South Africa. What makes this group so special is they are an all-female unit. In a culture where females are limited to only a couple of jobs this is a big leap forward towards a more progressive society. Hopefully by following the lead of the Black Mambas more females will want to join the cause and improve their education on conservation within their communities.
I became interested about a year ago when I was looking around about what my next film should be and I had an old friend who worked up in a different reserve in Kenya posting a lot of information about the protection of rhinos. I started to research into it and found out about the Black Mambas. I reached out and thankfully they got back to me and we moved forward from there.
Mongabay: When and where was the film shot? Was it difficult to get permission to shoot any of the people or places you wanted access to?
Dan Sadgrove: It was shot in July 2016 in the Balule Game Reserve in South Africa. We already had permission to film the Mambas, but the difficulty lay in filming them without disturbing their duties. First and foremost, their number one priority is to look out for break-ins along the fence line and for snare traps. From a filmmaking perspective, this limits us to a more documentary scope, but my intention was to always lift the visuals out from this genre and into a more visceral landscape so we worked a bit when they were off duty. We were always aware to not disturb them too much. It was a balance between us all but I think we got what we all wanted out of it.
Mongabay: Who makes the key appearances in the film, and what is their contribution/what perspective do they bring?
Dan Sadgrove: As time was limited, we filmed a couple of the Black Mamba groups that were stationed on duty inside the reserve. Either when they were on patrol, or afterwards when they were in their huts. They all bring a different perspective because they all have lives outside that are rife with struggle that comes with growing up in a community high on unemployment and low on education. A lot of them are the sole breadwinners to their extended families, so they bear the responsibility alone to not only avoid getting killed by poachers or the wildlife, but to be able to support their grandparents, parents, brothers, sisters, and children as well. They’ve taken a role traditionally reserved for men and they carry this enormous responsibility both inside the park and within their homes, so the perspective they bring is absolutely unique and, in my opinion, groundbreaking.
Mongabay: Did you go on patrol with The Black Mambas in the course of shooting the film? What was that experience like?
Dan Sadgrove: We followed them a little bit both during the day and briefly at night. From my humble beginnings in New Zealand where we have no deadly wildlife and nothing that can kill you, it was an eye-opening experience. There was a lot to learn about tracking and animals and trying to avoid conflict and even contact with them. The reserve has rhinos, hippos, lions, elephants, kudu, giraffes. It’s spectacular as a fan of wildlife, but when you stand in the wild you are always on high alert for potential danger. It was safety in numbers when the four of the production crew and the Mambas were walking, but I couldn’t imagine doing it just the two of them up to twenty kilometers a day. They are courageous to get out there into the wild, unarmed, and patrol the reserve. Some of their stories make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck and this courage they all have will always greatly impress me. I have the utmost respect and admiration for their ability to suppress this fear each day in the effort of conservation. I just never knew how dangerous it really was out there until I was in the middle of it. Luckily we didn’t see any poachers, which is a credit to the women, but there was always the threat.
Mongabay: When you went into making the film, did you already have a story in mind that you wanted to tell? Did you discover anything surprising or that you weren’t already counting on along the way, and did that end up impacting the story you tell?
Dan Sadgrove: I had a few ideas, but they were all thrown in the bin on the first day. There were particular shots I wanted to get, like having them all marching together, but we had to respect their duties and their time off, so we created other opportunities to try and showcase the ladies, the importance of their roles in the reserve and within their communities and the surrounding environment.
I think their backstory became the story once we started talking to them. The struggle they come from, their desire to do great things and this fear they overcome. I ended up wanting to tell their story rather than showcase the rhino out in the wild. It’s very hard to try get people to open up their wallets, I feel, but by giving these ladies a voice and hearing their dreams and fears I hope we can reach out to an audience that empathize with them. They have this job that is so important to the protection of this endangered species, but they also are people who are trying to break free from the shackles of tradition. Maybe they can inspire hope within their communities as well.
I just want to mention something that is apparent in the video, which is that none of the rhinos we filmed have horns. That’s because all these rhinos are orphans from mothers who have been poached and killed for their horns. The rehabilitation centers, some of which we didn’t name in the credits to protect them, take these baby rhinos in and nurse them back to health. Their horns are shaved down each year to stop poachers from trying to attack the rehabilitation centers as well. They are beautiful creatures and it’s a shame that some of these rhinos will never be able to be released back into the wild again. The babies require 24-hour care for at least two years, meaning the carers sleep with them each night and feed them every four hours or so. It’s truly heartbreaking to see.
Mongabay: What are you hoping to achieve with the film — bring more attention to their work, inspire more folks to get involved in conservation? Or just to simply tell a good story?
Dan Sadgrove: It was never just to tell a good story. I wanted to make something outside my personal sphere. My other films are mostly introspective, but they are selfish really, they are from a single perspective. I felt this was a unique opportunity to cover something that Craig Spencer and the Black Mamba team have initiated and it was something I could get behind and try to help support the awareness of their efforts.
The film in the end wasn’t just about the conservation of the rhinos, it was about the Black Mambas breaking away from a patriarchal society and being courageous in the face of fear. About them focusing on turning the ship around slowly through educating the youth, hoping they can bring these stories of conservation back into their families and stop poaching from within. I hope these Mambas can inspire other women in their villages to look outside traditional employment. I hope the film can inspire the people who watch it to get behind a cause that is important to them, whether it is to do with the environment or conservation. We are at an important point in history where the changes we affect over the next century will determine whether we can survive as a species and whether we sustain our environment on this planet. Whether it’s the Black Mamba Anti Poaching Unit or something else that touches them, I hope this film encourages people to look outside their homes and reach out into the world.