Hunting for Poachers with the Black Mambas

As part of her ongoing project, Proud Women of Africa, Julia Gunther went on patrol with South Africa's female anti-poaching unit to capture their fight to save some of the world’s most critically endangered animals.

TheBlackMambas_On_Patrol_JuliaGunther.jp© Julia Gunther, from the series, The Black Mambas

When Julia Gunther came across South Africa’s Black Mamba Anti-poaching Unit, she couldn’t believe her good fortune. The German photographer had been working on a personal project, Proud Women of Africa - a collection of stories about women in Africa who’ve overcome obstacles - since 2008. She had photographed lesbian women in South African townships, and inside a maternity ward in a Rwandan hospital, among other places. A story about a female anti-poaching patrol would be a perfect fit, she says. “I thought, here is a group of women trying to protect South Africa’s wildlife and heritage; how much more proud can you get? I had to get in touch with them.”

At first it was difficult to make contact - the women were not keen on more media attention, she says. But eventually the unit allowed Julia to spend a week with them in July 2015. “I organised flights and a car not knowing what I was getting into. But it was worth the [financial] risks because I came home with some beautiful images and stories.”

© Julia Gunther, from the series, The Black Mambas

The Black Mambas as they are known, are 26 unarmed women who patrol Balule Nature Reserve, which borders Kruger National Park. The unit was founded in 2013 by the organisation Transfrontier Africa. Julia, who is based in Amsterdam, joined the women during a full moon when the unit was on high alert; poachers are especially active at this time because the brightness of the moon makes it even easier for them to set traps and move freely about the reserve.

During her stay, Julia trekked with the women, sometimes walking up to 20 kilometres per day. She documented their daily activities: studying animal tracks, fixing broken fences, and surveying the reserve, and also took many portraits. “I like to pause my subjects so they have a chance to tell the viewer something,” she says. “I try to speak as little as possible and allow my subjects to tell their stories.”

© Julia Gunther, from the series, The Black Mambas

Most important is the women’s happiness, says Julia, who continues to work on the project. “It’s not just about me getting pretty pictures and then running off… I made some money, which I donated back to the Black Mambas’ cause… I get a kick out of making a difference to these women’s lives.”

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Julia Gunther lives and works in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Her work is primarily documentary based and her projects are usually made up of a mixture of portraits and investigative images.

Gemma Padley is a freelance writer and editor on photography, based in the UK.

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