The BIG Project
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Felicia | Balule Reserve | South Africa

The BIG Project is a photography initiative created to document and share stories about the environment and animal rights that are happening now and need to be told before they become past.

The demand for rhino horn has increased as animal populations are decreasing, driving many species towards extinction. South Africa is home to 70% of the world's rhinos, and they are being poached to have their horns used in tradicional Chinese medicine, although there’s no scientific proof of its medicinal value. In 2007, there were 13 reported rhinos killed, but 8 years later, this number climbed up to 1175. Their horns cost as much as gold in the black market, and with such high value by weight, human greed has exceeded the efforts to protect these animals, but that doesn’t mean the fight is over as there are still hopeful people that are bringing amazing results against poaching.

Felicia Mogakane is one of them. She's part of a group with 36 women that patrol the entire Balule Nature Reserve, in northeast South Africa, protecting rhinos and other animals from poachers. They are trained on how to locate poaching activities, snares and other threat to animal lives, as well as combat, first aid, communication and surviving in the bush. These women are called Black Mambas after the very fast, lethally venomous and highly aggressive snake that lives in the area.

The Black Mambas was founded in 2013 and employs only women who are passionate about wildlife and the environment, and work as the eyes and ears of the bush. If they find something suspicious on their patrols they communicate to the Control Room, a place with maps, radios and monitors where all their technology and strategy lives. This anti-poaching unit has assisted in many arrests, identified and destroyed some 20 poachers’ camps and bush meat kitchens, and reduced rhino poaching by 65%.

It's very challenging for the organization to bring so much result depending on donations to cover their training, equipment and other operational costs, but their passion makes it possible. Felicia gets her minimum wage salary (about US$230) through the Environmental Monitor Program and spend a good portion of it in transportation to and from home. She can't have a second job, faces many dangerous encounters in the bush and belives she's doing the right thing for the environment she cares so much about.

But they don’t only fight with direct action on the field. Zim Gibisela is a teacher for the BushBabies Program (Black Mamba’s environmental education project) which is present in local schools to bring knowledge to life, raise awareness of the surrounding environment, give a better understand of conservation and lead to sustainable use of resources. The program accept volunteers from all over the world to help with the work and share their experience, like Sally Trower from Canada. Social upliftment is also a big concern for the organization. They only recruit rangers from local and previously disadvantaged communities, and work to better their lives developing skills and in any other way they can.

Felicia is a Black Mamba since its foundation. She and the other ladies spend 3 weeks patrolling for 1 week at home. During the 3 weeks she’s working her “home” is a small timber house in a shared area next to the Operations Center. Her patrol schedule includes fence patrol (searching for damages in the fences around the reserve), sweeping (searching for snares and signs of poaching activities in the bush), night patrol (whenever there’s a full moon) and gate block (searching cars that leave the reserve). Felicia wants to go to college and study conservation one day. She was one of the two Black Mambas who travelled to London and New York in 2015 to receive the UN sponsored Champions of the Earth Award on behalf of the whole team.

This story was documented in February, 2017.

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