By Belinda Goldsmith
UNITED NATIONS (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Unemployed and bored, Collet Ngobeni and Felicia Mogakane both jumped at the chance when asked if they wanted to join South Africa's first all-female anti-poaching team.
Ngobeni, 30, and Mogakane, 27, were two of the original members of the 24-strong Black Mambas, a group set up in 2013 to protect the private Balule wildlife reserve, an Israel-size park that borders the Kruger National Park, and its resident rhinos.
Both women saw this as an opportunity to break out of the cycle of unemployment in their villages of Islington and Welverdiend and prove that women could play in role in conservation in South Africa as well as men.
Over the past two years the team, which does not carry guns, has been praised for reducing snaring by 76 percent in the reserve, saving the lives of rhinos whose horns are highly prized on the black market, and putting poachers out of action.
In New York on Sunday to accept the United Nations top environmental accolade, the Champions of the Earth award, the two women clad in camouflage uniforms, black ankle boots and large gold hoop earrings, said they hoped they were role models for other women and their children.
"My mother said I shouldn't take this job as it was for men and I'd be killed, but I wanted people, and my daughter, to respect me," said Ngobeni, mother of 4-year-old Nesakelo.
"All people from my country need to protect our nature and our heritage. This is for our future generations," she said.
The two women, on their first trip outside South Africa, want their trip to New York to highlight the need for sustainability in natural resources as the United Nations kickstarts a 15-year global plan to end poverty, empower women and combat climate change.
The U.N.'s 193 member nations adopted the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) on Friday after three years of negotiations created the most comprehensive global action plan ever to address the world's ills and protect the planet.
U.N. Environment Program (UNEP) Deputy Executive Director Ibrahim Thiaw said the success of the Black Mambas in reducing poaching now raised the question of how and where this program could be replicated.
Mogakane, who has two young sons, said the Black Mambas wanted to protect wildlife for future generations.
The Black Mambas patrol the Balule reserve for 21 days at a time, walking up to 20km (12 miles) a day as they check fences and seek out poachers, their trails, camps and snares.
"We're called the Black Mambas because we can bite and we can strike as fast as lightening," laughed Mogakane.
(Reporting by Belinda Goldsmith, Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)