The boy is small, far too young to be informing on people running dog fighting rings. But here he is, waiting for Cora Bailey under the appointed tree in the middle of a barren field.
“This is not a nice place,” Bailey, a petite blonde in her mid-60s, says of the neighborhood, a desperate, deeply impoverished part of Soweto, a township on the outskirts of Johannesburg. It’s so dangerous here that few white South Africans dare to come.
But Bailey is different. She visits the townships daily. She knows this little boy well. She worries he’s already going crooked, spending time with the wrong people in the absence of parents.
Photo: Cora with a rescued piglet at the Randfontein municipal dump site.
Where does she go? Why are we always hungry?
“Don’t pick your face,” she says, gently swatting his hand as he tells her what he knows about the latest dog fights and the drug dealers who are involved. Then the conversation turns to him. Bailey asks about his health and explains some relaxation techniques that might help his headaches. She can tell something else is wrong.
“Tell me,” she says, and the boy, starting to cry, unloads. His mother is never around, he says. She doesn’t look after any of his siblings, so he is left to change nappies and beg neighbors for food. Where does she go? Why are we always hungry? He asks Bailey.
Founder of the organization Community Led Animal Welfare(CLAW) Bailey has dedicated herself to helping animals across Johannesburg’s townships for nearly three decades. It started in 1991, back when she was a board member for the local SPCA, before South Africa’s first democratic elections and in the midst of apartheid and a brutal civil war.
“Most of that war was in the townships,” says Bailey, a mother of four and grandmother of seven. After massacres, she’d visit their scenes to collect the animals who had been left behind, injured and starving.
Quickly, Bailey learned a truth that has defined her life’s work:
If you want to help animals here, you have to help humans, too.
Photo: A monkey saying hello to Cora Bailey.
“It was never very easy to tell people how to look after their animals when you see the dire poverty,” Bailey says.
“We didn’t ever set out to do food parcels or community gardens or to counsel sick people. But it’s hard not to do that when they have nothing.”
Bailey’s days are as varied as they are trauma-filled. Essentially, she spends them doing the best she can to alleviate suffering wherever she finds it, and in a place like this, it’s easy to find.
Especially when you can’t seem to stop yourself from looking for it.
Especially when you’re the only one there is to call.
Photo: Bailey and community members of the Randfontein municipal dump site.
Photo: Bailey chatting with friends and dogs in Soweto.
On the way to bring food to a man who is dying of AIDS, Bailey might rescue a dog who has been left for dead on the side of a road after being hit by a car or stabbed. On her way to talk to the police about illegally sold rat poison that is also killing dogs, she might hear about a toddler in need of a ride to a hospital after being badly burned by a cooking fire.
While visiting a child with cerebral palsy, she might get a call about a vervet monkey or chacma baboon who has been chased up a tree after wandering into a suburb.
Sometimes Bailey arrives to find an animal whose limbs have all been cut off. Sometimes she finds a crowd at the base of the tree, in which case she’ll spend hours carefully persuading them to let her intervene.
Imagine how scary this must be for the monkey, she’ll say. He must want to be with his family again.
Whenever her phone rings – suicidal children, dogs with all four legs broken, alcoholic rampages – Bailey’s answer is usually the same, even late at night:
She is at once as hard and as soft as they come.
Hard: Driving through Soweto, she spots a group of young men. They make money fighting dogs and selling drugs, and after Bailey made problems for them, they threatened to burn her house down, which, here, is well within the realm of plausibility. But Bailey doesn’t turn her car around or hurry by. She slows down, pulls up next to them, rolls down her window, leans out and stares.
Soft: Inside a rundown hut, Bailey cradles a woman named Petronela who has AIDS and is gravely sick. Petronela cries about her philandering husband, the pain of dying, and her worry for her children. Bailey listens, and then helps get her into hospice care.
Photo: Cora Bailey with a semi-paralyzed puppy.
Bailey has been shot at and held up.
When a girl is raped, Bailey is often summoned instead of the authorities. Women with nowhere else to go have shown up at her veterinary clinic to give birth. She has been asked to adopt people’s children, which she has. She has taken on too many fosters over the years to count, both animal and human.
Among them is Moses, who is older now but still close with Bailey. He lives at a place known as The Dumping, a massive municipal garbage dump in Randfontein. Here, the poorest of the poor scavenge for scraps and criminals evading capture hide from the police, who are generally too afraid to come here because of the violence. But Bailey is loved at The Dumping and visits often. She arrives with food and veterinary care and leaves with broken people and animals who she and CLAW will try to piece back together.
Bailey finds Moses, who spent years coming and going from her house when he was younger. They chat as they walk The Dumping together. They find a runt piglet struggling desperately to keep up with her litter. Bailey scoops her up. Filthy and tiny, it’s clear she’s severely malnourished –– without the right nutrition soon, she may not survive. Next, they find a bone-thin dog so sick and pained that Moses has to carry him to Bailey’s car. With the piglet asleep in the front and the dog vomiting in the back, Bailey drives to CLAW’s clinic.
Photo: Moses helping round up dogs for vaccinations and vet checks at the CLAW mobile vet clinic at the Randfontein municipal dump.
Located in Durban Deep, an abandoned mining town now plagued by crime, the clinic lacks running water and grid electricity. Sometimes there is power from solar panels, but they’re stolen often enough that Bailey is accustomed to getting by in the dark. She has no formal veterinary training but has saved many lives all on her own. In seconds she knows whether it’s parvo or poison or a tick-borne disease. She lifts the scruff of a neck and can tell the dehydration is severe. She sees ghost-white gums and knows she has to move quickly.
After the vomiting dog is carried inside, Bailey starts his IV while she soothes him. Next, she goes in search of the appropriate milk for the piglet. She finds a farmer who is happy to give her some, and while the piglet gulps it down, Bailey advises the farmer on how to care for an infected spider bite she noticed on his hand.
Bailey stays up all night with the piglet, who survives, is named Whammy and ends up at a sanctuary. The dog recovers too.
Things don’t always turn out so well, of course: The animals whose wounds went neglected for too long. The dogs who’ve been too thoroughly destroyed, inside and out, by fighting. When euthanasia is the best choice, Bailey does what is needed, wipes away tears and gets on with whatever is next. Because what bothers her more than the animal in front of her, now at peace, is the one still out there who she might not find.
“There are thousands of places we can’t reach,” she says. “The hardest part is when you stop and think about how much there is to do.”
For much of what she has done, Bailey credits CLAW’s team. In addition to a shelter, adoptions, and its physical clinic, CLAW offers mobile vet clinics in the townships, where long lines of people wait to have their cats, dogs and more vaccinated and examined. For humans, CLAW distributes food, runs community gardens, assists child-headed households, teaches people how to care for the sick and dying, organizes communities to advocate for things such as water and rape victims’ rights, and hosts community events and a children’s program in Durban Deep. CLAW also serves as a drop-in center for kids, where they sing, read, and soak up attention from Bailey as she imparts the importance of sterilization for their pets and compassion for all. For much of its existence, CLAW received international funding, but today it scrapes by on small donations.
Photo: Cora Bailey and Anna, a friend and community worker, in some of the community gardens in Soweto. CLAW staff and volunteer teach community gardening to Soweto inhabitants.
Over the years, Bailey says, she has seen progress. In the beginning, she had to beg people to let her treat their animals. Now, people wait hours in the sun for care or walk kilometres with sick pets in wheelbarrows or in their arms. She says the flipside of all the suffering and brutality she encounters is the enormous love that even the poorest South Africans often display for their animals. She believes that anyone can be a good pet owner with a little support, and that everyone deserves the chance to be.
“I saw it, and once I did, I couldn’t turn away.”
Still, she continues to find herself in communities that have never had access to humane education or vet care. She continues to come across people who see sterilizing a dog as crazy. Then I won’t have a pet next year when this one dies, she still hears.
She says the problem is the overwhelming divide between haves and have-nots in South Africa. The haves must do more, she says.
“We’ve got to get out of this bubble.”
Bailey is technically retired now, having stepped away from the operational side of the organization she founded. All who know her, though, say that it’s is hard to imagine her ever stopping her work in the townships. They worry about her.
They also take inspiration from her. Bailey has influenced activists all over South Africa and beyond.
They also take inspiration from her. Bailey has influenced activists all over South Africa and beyond.
“Cora infuses everyone she meets with her passion to make the world a better place for all,” says Kathy Raffray, from the organization Ban Animal Trading.
“She’s a radiant beacon of hope in a very lost world.”
Photo: A sick piglet living at the Randfontein municipal dump in Soweto.
Bailey acknowledges the effects of it all.
“I can’t lie. Anxiety. Insomnia. I’m not always very together. It’s hard to switch off and find peace.”
“I always say that I lead with the carrot and
not the stick, quite literally.”
In many ways, the food industry is still a man’s world. But while hatted restaurants and celebrity chef titles are dominated by men, it’s often women who are changing the game when it comes to food innovation and accessibility.
Veganism is the fastest-growing food movement, and it’s more than just a trend. Plant-based eating is here to stay, and women are leading the charge. Through innovative and delicious vegan cooking, baking, cheese-making, plant-based meats and nutritional education, women are transforming the way we think about food, our health, and our relationships with other animals.
With creativity and purpose, women are setting the agenda for the plant-based food movement, and, with their out-of-this-world social media smarts, are bringing compassionate eating into kitchens everywhere. In their hands, food becomes a means of powerful activism, inspiring people around the world to rethink their food choices and habits, and changing the world for animals in the process.
Meet eight women changing the world for animals through food:
Lauren Toyota/Hot For Food
Lauren Toyota. Photo by: Vanessa Heins
Hot For Food has been cooking up a storm around the world. The woman behind the movement, Lauren Toyota, loves creating vegan versions of classic comfort foods – think mac and cheese, saucy burgers, and even cheesecake! Toyota is bringing veganism into the mainstream and proving plant-based food is far from boring.
I always say just do it. Whatever dream or idea you have, just start. Take a step in the direction of your dreams. There’s room for everyone and we need as many advocates as we can get. So stop thinking about it and just take action!
Anna Pippus of Instagram account @easyanimalfree is all about keeping things simple – no complicated recipes or hours of prepping; just home-cooked meals thrown together using what’s on hand and what’s in season. Rather than another book of complicated recipes, Pippus saw a need for people to know how to throw a quick meal together, use leftovers and in-season produce, and have a sense of foods that go well together. She uses social media to share her personal recipes and lifestyle tips, and shares stories from her own life raising a vegan family.
It’s hard to underestimate the role of food in farmed animal advocacy. I believe that our movement will be won on food first, not ethics. It’s starting to happen now! My goal is to teach people how to feed themselves and their families — if they have them — simple and delicious plant-based food!
Colleen Patrick-Goudreau. Photo courtesy of Colleen Patrick-Goudreau.
Twenty years ago, Colleen Patrick-Goudreau was a young activist leafleting and organising animal rights demonstrations. Today, she is the award-winning author of several books, host of two podcasts, and is a thought leader on the culinary, social, ethical, and practical aspects of living compassionately and healthfully.
I believe that when we change the way we think about and perceive other animals, we change the way we treat them.
On top of her work as a private chef, Day Radley is an educator, spreading her love of healthy vegan eating by teaching professional chefs plant-based food and presenting cooking demonstrations around the United Kingdom. Her food is the perfect combination of nutritious and delicious, teaching that compassionate eating can be for everyone.
I always say that I lead with the carrot and not the stick, quite literally. This approach shifts the focus from a negative where you talk about animal abuse. Many people can shut down with the discussion of what is really happening to animals in farming. But everyone is open to seeing great food pictures and being inspired in the kitchen.
Growing up in a family of vegetarians in South Africa, Tammy Fry was surrounded by the plant-based meats of The Fry Family Food Co., now known around the world for its home-style meat alternatives. With a passion for empowering others to live happier, more energetic lifestyles, Fry shares recipes, lifestyle tips and plant-based advocacy ideas through her Seed blog and workshops.
The question is not ‘can you make a difference?’ You already do. It’s just a matter of what kind of difference you choose to make. Go out there and make positive change happen!
Lynda Turner with Carla and Eddy. Photo courtesy of Lynda Turner.
As a scientist, Lynda Turner had always been interested in health and how lifestyle choices affect our health. After switching to a vegan diet eight years ago, Turner realized that there was a need for more convenient vegan options and started experimenting with making plant-based cheeses. After encouragement from her (very non-vegan) friends and family, she founded Fauxmagerie Zengarry to offer satisfying non-dairy cheese options and she hasn’t looked back since!
In an industry that is brand new, there is no recipe to follow. I have had to figure things out as I went along… If people have more amazing vegan options that are easy, convenient and readily available, my hope is that more people will make more educated and compassionate dietary choices on a daily basis. Every choice counts.
In 2011, Erin founded her Vancouver-based bakery wholesaler, To Die For Fine Foods, and turned the whole company vegan soon after. Today, Vancouver vegans don’t need to go out of their way to find to die for baked goods because they’re in just about every neighbourhood, and non-vegans are discovering in droves that modern vegan food is every bit as delicious as its traditional counterparts. Ireland also organizes community events like book clubs and movie screenings to help people learn about what is happening to animals and how a plant-based, compassionate lifestyle can make a difference.
Every day, I wake up and think about the countless sentient animals who are being used by humans unnecessarily, against their will. My heart bleeds for these incredible creatures who are intelligent and intuitive in ways we can’t possibly understand. I dream of peace on Earth, which won’t be achieved until our world is vegan.
Latham Thomas is a sought-after wellness guru and doula, helping women to have the best pregnancy, birth, and mothering experience possible. She was named one of Oprah Winfrey’s Super Soul 100, and is the founder of Mama Glow, which offers inspiration, education, and holistic services for expectant and new mamas. She teaches self-care practices to help women live their best, plant-based lives.
“If I only lived for that, then I had a good life.”
Samantha Dewhirst (L) photo by Jo-Anne McArthur. Rita Miljo (R) photo provided by C.A.R.E.
It was a hot July night in 2012. Like most evenings, Samantha Dewhirst and Stephen Munro were gathered for a cobbled-together, family-style dinner with other volunteer staff at the Centre for Animal Rehabilitation and Education, or C.A.R.E., deep in the South African bush.
With the sounds of wildlife echoing in the distance, they were chatting and laughing, sharing stories from the day – good medicine for a group of 20-somethings earning no pay for one of the most demanding and thankless jobs in animal protection: rehabilitating chacma baboons, a “vermin” species so despised by locals that for a long time, shooting them on sight was considered a civic duty.
And then one of their party stepped out onto the balcony and spotted it – a fire in the distance. The building that was burning housed C.A.R.E.’s clinic and orphan sleeping quarters as well as the second-floor apartment of the centre’s legendary founder, Rita Miljo, who was 81. Dewhirst, Munro and the others rushed to the fire. They managed to save more than 30 baboons, but three perished, along with Miljo, the only leader C.A.R.E. had ever known.
The main purpose in my life is to show people that baboons can be beautiful. And if I only lived for that, then I had a good life.
With hundreds of baboons in residence, few paid staff and little money, the centre was facing a sea of complex challenges, from permit issues to aging facilities to adversarial neighbours. Miljo’s death could easily have meant the end of C.A.R.E. But six years on, the centre is thriving, thanks to a group of young people, including Dewhirst, who stepped up when South Africa’s baboons needed them most.
“It was really scary,” Dewhirst, now 31, says of the time immediately after Miljo’s death. “I was in survival mode. All we could think about was making sure C.A.R.E. would survive.”
Of the years since, Dewhirst says, “It was very much, ‘If you want it to move forward, you have to push it, push it, push it.’
“And that’s what we’ve been doing.”
Born in 1931, Miljo grew up in Germany and hoped to become a veterinarian after the war. It didn’t work out, but she worked for a time at the Hagenback Zoo in Hamburg. In a 1953, she moved to Africa with a mining engineer whom she married. She fell in love with the bush and South Africa’s wildlife, buying a small farm at the edge of Kruger National Park that served as her family’s weekend retreat and would eventually become C.A.R.E.
She learned to fly and became a proficient pilot. It was an interest she shared with her husband until it took his life in 1972, when the small plane he was flying crashed. With him was their 17-year-old daughter, who was also killed. In a way, the loss emboldened Miljo; what did she have to fear when she’d already experienced the worst thing that could possibly happen?
Miljo met her first baboon around 1980 – an orphaned female she came across while traveling in Namibia. She smuggled her across the South African border and named her Bobby, living with her in busy Johannesburg before the pair moved permanently a few years later to Miljo’s bush retreat, about 400 kilometers northeast. Soon Miljo began taking in more animals, including other chacma baboons, mostly babies who’d been orphaned when their mothers were shot or poisoned. In 1989, she founded C.A.R.E.
At the time, no one rehabilitated baboons for return to the wild, where the species lives in large troops with set social orders that individuals, especially adult females, cannot simply be inserted into. Miljo had no scientific training, but at her retreat in Limpopo, along the banks of the Olifants River, she paid close attention to a troop of wild baboons that she affectionately named the Long Tits. While Bobby showed Miljo how intelligent and loving individual baboons could be, it was the Long Tits who taught her the intricacies of their groups – their ranking system, dynamics, and various calls for danger, for mating, and for soothing their young.
With new orphans arriving at C.A.R.E. all the time, “You didn’t need to be a genius to say, ‘Let’s make our own troops,’” Miljo explained in one of many interviews she gave about her work.
Learning as she went, Miljo developed her rehabilitation model: Baby baboons were hand-raised by human surrogate mothers who were with them 24 hours a day, sleeping with them, changing their diapers and bottle-feeding them. (In order to thrive, orphaned baboons need the same kind of touch and comfort as human children.) Orphans were introduced to others, and eventually, entirely new troops were created that lived together and bonded for years at the centre before being released as groups at carefully chosen locations. A release – a gradual process in which a human stuck around to assist and then test and observe the group before finally leaving – took months.
People said it couldn’t be done, that it was madness to do it, and that she was mad to do it. And yet she succeeded.
It was hard work made even harder by South African laws and prejudice against Miljo’s beloved baboons. She had to be tough. When hunters trespassed onto C.A.R.E.’s land to shoot baboons, Miljo shot back, literally. Brash and direct, she was known for speaking her mind and was honest about preferring baboons to people; with baboons, she would say, you always knew where you stood.
To neighbours and South African officials who didn’t understand her, Miljo was regarded as an irritant, even as crazy. But to many others, she was a pioneer, revered for her bravery, determination and empathy.
“People said it couldn’t be done, that it was madness to do it, and that she was mad to do it. And yet she succeeded,” Will Travers, of the Born Free Foundation, said in a documentary about Miljo, Lady Baboon.
In an interview for the same film, Jane Goodall said, “We have all these different species in the world. Thank goodness there are people like Rita who are working for those that other people don’t like.”
Miljo eventually grew the 32-acre C.A.R.E. into the world’s largest baboon centre, with volunteers from around the globe and more than a dozen troop releases, including one attended by Nelson Mandela. Although she suffered from dementia toward the end of her life, with C.A.R.E. declining in some ways as she aged, Miljo remained dedicated to the animals she loved until her death. She had no misgivings about the cause to which she’d chosen to give everything.
“The main purpose in my life is to show people that baboons can be beautiful,” she said in Lady Baboon.
“And if I only lived for that, then I had a good life.”
To say that day to day life at C.A.R.E. is challenging is an understatement. Snakes occasionally find their way into the centre’s kitchen. Most buildings are encaged to keep out wild baboons and residents who inevitably get loose on occasion. It’s sometimes necessary to run from elephants, who have broken through fences in search of food during droughts. The nearest town is a 45-minute drive away. The heat is unforgiving. Volunteer quarters are small and shared. Even Dewhirst and Munro, who became a couple about seven years ago and live full-time on C.A.R.E.’s grounds, didn’t have their own bathroom until after the birth of their daughter, Sophia, now two-and-a-half.
Still, Dewhirst wouldn’t have it any other way.
“It’s just stunning,” she says, standing above the Olifants, taking in the breathtaking view that is C.A.R.E.’s backdrop. “It’s magical here.”
About the baboons, she says, “They’re incredible, intelligent and empathetic animals, and you can’t help but let them under your skin once you begin to understand them. You see past their impressive teeth and intimidating size. They’re just trying to survive and protect their families and feed their young in an unforgiving world.
“They steal your heart.”
Dewhirst first came to C.A.R.E. as a 19-year-old volunteer in 2006. By then she’d interned for Goodall and knew she wanted a career involving primates. She kept returning to the centre for temporary stays whenever she could, helping between visits with marketing and networking from afar. In the United Kingdom where she grew up, she took a job at Monkey World, an ape rescue centre, but found herself missing the baboons who she’d come to care about so deeply. After earning a master’s degree in primate conservation from Oxford Brookes University, she returned permanently to C.A.R.E. in 2011.
She wasn’t sure at first whether it was for good – her head was telling her not to let go of a salary, stability and her boyfriend in the U.K. – but then Miljo asked her to lead a project rehabilitating a group of baboons coming from a research lab. It was the push Dewhirst needed.
“I’m sorry for your boyfriend,” Miljo told her, “but so happy for the baboons.”
“To give up all of that,” Dewhirst recalls, “it was a huge emotional ordeal in my mind. But my heart was already here.”
The fire (the cause of which was never discovered) only strengthened her commitment.
In the months after the disaster, former C.A.R.E. volunteers and friends who’d lost touch with Miljo came out of the woodwork with support and donations. It was a critical boost, but for the most part, the early days without Miljo brought only grief and challenges.
Miljo had left the centre to Scottish-born Munro, who at 28 already had a decade of experience at C.A.R.E. under his belt. But Miljo had always been the decision-maker. They could call on C.A.R.E.’s board members for support, but on the ground, everything was suddenly on the shoulders of Munro, Dewhirst and a small group of other young volunteers.
Day by day, with hope and hard work, they found their way.
“We weren’t able to let ourselves think too much,” Dewhirst says of the time.
By 2013, success started creeping back. With a permit and a location secured – both can be hugely challenging – they carried out C.A.R.E.’s first release in years. With Munro away for months camping with the troop, Dewhirst ran the centre without him, surprising herself that she was able to manage, she says.
The whole point is to get these animals out so they can be wild again and free.
C.A.R.E.’s newfound leaders kept pushing, and progress continued. In 2014, the centre finished a new clinic, which Dewhirst helped design along with other new buildings. Enclosures for resident baboons were upgraded; C.A.R.E. now has three massive semi-wild enclosures. The extra space for competition and hiding has allowed caretakers to introduce older male baboons – who before were thought capable only of living alone – into troops. All females are now on contraception, enabling them to replace some human surrogates for incoming orphans. In 2016, the centre completed a new nursery, as well as a visitor area and education centre – a long-time dream that is now in full swing.
“The whole point is to get these animals out so they can be wild again and free,” says Hannah Young, an American who, along with her now-husband Adam, was critical to C.A.R.E.’s survival in the years after Miljo’s death. “We have to have safe places to do that and a community behind us who wants that too.”
Young, who is now back in the United States after years at C.A.R.E., acknowledges that changing attitudes about baboons isn’t easy. “It’s daunting,” she says, “but that doesn’t mean we can’t start somewhere. We have to show people why baboons are important.”
They’re just trying to survive and protect their families and feed their young in an unforgiving world. They steal your heart.
Dewhirst agrees: “We know now that in order for C.A.R.E. to move forward, we need to invite people in.”
Besides C.A.R.E.’s extremely dedicated volunteers, Dewhirst says, the centre’s board members have made a huge difference, namely Karen Pilling and Annalize and Martin Piek.
“They were always just a phone call away to give much-needed emotional support and wisdom,” Dewhirst says.
Today, Munro and Dewhirst – the centre’s managing director and assisting managing director, respectively – are prioritizing releases and searching for a property on which to expand, with a goal of housing all baboons undergoing rehabilitation in semi-wild enclosures. Although they’ve refined her methods over the years, Miljo’s model of forming bonded, cohesive troops for release remains at the core of their work.
In addition to hundreds of baboons, known by name and regarded as family by Munro and Dewhirst, they are raising their daughter Sophia, who is at their side much of the time. Dewhirst says her family back in the U.K. worried about her decision to return to C.A.R.E. with Sophia after she was born, but Dewhirst couldn’t really imagine anything else.
“We’re making it work,” she says.
When she thinks about the future and all the possibility it might hold for C.A.R.E. and for Africa’s baboons, she likes to think of Miljo, who is buried on the centre’s grounds in a coffin she shares with Bobby, who died in the fire beside her.
Miljo was in her late 50s when she started C.A.R.E., Dewhirst notes, and in her 60s when she released her first rehabilitated baboons.
“I just think, wow,” Dewhirst says. “The amount that she achieved in that short space of time is really incredible.
“Who knows what we can achieve? We have so much time.”
Learn more and support C.A.R.E. Photos and interviews by Jo-Anne McArthur. Text by Corinne Benedict.
“Their mindset has changed. They’ve seen that
women can do it.”
Yenzekile Mathebula (L) and Leitah Mkhabela (R). All photos by Jo-Anne McArthur/Unbound Project.
Balule Nature Reserve, part of South Africa’s famous Kruger National Park, is home to all of the so-called Big Five: rhinos, elephants, buffalo, leopards, and lions. A fair share of venomous snakes and hyenas roam its 150 square miles, too.
But the most dangerous creatures in this hot, unforgiving landscape are the human predators: poachers, often armed, looking to leave with bushmeat or valuable rhino horn.
Protecting this sanctuary is surely a task best left to men – big ones with guns, right?
For the past five years, a group of a few dozen women, all of them young and from communities immediately surrounding Balule, have been changing minds about what it takes to save wildlife. Now well known as the Black Mambas, their anti-poaching unit patrols unarmed, relying on keen observation, a visible presence and relationships with their neighbours over force.
Felicia Mogakane (L) and Siphewe Sithole (R)
“At first, people around the world thought that anti-poaching is a man’s job,” says Felicia Mogahane, in her late 20s and among the first of the Black Mambas when the nearly all-female unit launched in 2013. “They think women are there for taking care of babies, maybe cooking at home. They never thought that women can protect wildlife and do this dangerous job.
Their mindset has changed because of the Black Mambas. They’ve seen that women can do it.
Now with more than 30 rangers, the Black Mambas have been true pioneers in a profession that is heavily dominated by men, especially in Africa. Most of the unit’s members join shortly after high school, when many of their female peers are prioritizing marriage, home life or jobs seen as more acceptable for women.
Instead, Mambas spend months in intense field training, learning surveillance practices, compliance techniques and how to survive alone in the bush. Once in the unit, they spend three weeks away from home at a time, conducting long patrols, including at night, both by jeep and on foot. Often far from any backup, they dismantle poachers’ camps and snares, come to the aid of animals who’ve been harmed, and search for signs of intrusion, such as breaks in fencing, human tracks and even out-of-place rocks.
In the unit’s early years, members say, many recruits’ families and neighbours were unsupportive. But that has changed as the Mambas, named after the deadly snake, have become internationally known and celebrated. They’ve been featured by countless newspapers, websites and television shows.
“I don’t want to lie,” Mogahane says. “At first my family was so negative about this idea. They said, ‘Don’t go. What about us?’”
Today, relatives take immense pride in her work, she says. And when she is home between stints in the bush, she is bombarded with questions from women who want to follow in her footsteps.
“They always ask me, ‘When are they going to hire more Mambas?’”
What has garnered so much attention isn’t just that the Mambas are among South Africa’s first black women to work as rangers. It’s that what they’re doing is working. Poaching in and around Balule has decreased dramatically since the unit began, including among rhinos, the main species the Mambas were created to protect. In 2015, their success earned them the prestigious United Nations’ Champions of the Earth award.
“We are the best,” Leitah Mkhabela, a Black Mamba in her early 20s, says matter-of-factly.
Mogahane adds, “It’s been insane. They love what we are doing.”
Field work, looking for snares
Mambas in the field
Colin Mathebula and Felicia Mogahane
Mambas in the field
In the years before the Mambas, unit administrator Amy Clark says, two major poaching crises nearly wiped out Kruger’s rhino population, now estimated to be around 9,000. (South Africa is home to about 20,000 rhinos, far more than any other country.)
“Bringing the same tools out of the toolbox wasn’t going to work,” Clark says. “It had already failed twice.”
Convinced that bullets would never be the way, Craig Spencer, who founded the Black Mambas, decided a unit of women could be part of the answer, along with an approach based on deterrence and modeled after the British police: “bobbies on the beat” who are unarmed but well trained, highly regarded and ever-present.
Colin Mathebula and Felicia Mogahane
“The Mambas are the eyes and ears of the reserve,” Mogahane says. “We do visual policing. We look more carefully because we’re not carrying guns. When we’re patrolling in the bush and along the fence, we don’t have time to play.”
We are the best.
Also key is that Black Mambas come from the same communities as the poachers and would-be poachers they are working to stop. Part of their work involves teaching locals that live rhinos are more valuable to South Africans than dead ones. Besides setting an example and promoting their conservation ethos through their patrol work, the Mambas give environmental education lessons in local schools through a program called Bush Babies. They are certain that children of poachers are among those they reach.
Mamba NoCry Mzimba explains her unit’s success a slightly different way: “The poachers, they are afraid of the Mambas. They’re not sure what we’re capable of. That’s our secret.”
She adds, “When we started this, most people didn’t believe in us. But they realized they made a mistake.”
Young rhinos orphaned by poaching
Rhino education program
Rhino education program
The Mambas acknowledge that their job involves danger and hardship. Many are mothers who rely on family and neighbours to help rear their children while they’re away, and while no Mambas have been killed for their work, they know that poachers have murdered many rangers at other African reserves.
“I sometimes think that they will come to our reserve and do the same thing,” Mogahane, who has two children, confesses. Of her kids, she says, “You wish you could be there to look after them. Sometimes it’s so stressful.”
But what they are protecting is worth it, and so are the now-shattered barriers they’ve broken through, she and other Mambas say.
The poachers, they are afraid of the Mambas. They’re not sure what we’re capable of. That’s our secret.
“I’ve committed myself to saving rhinos and wildlife,” Mogahane says. “I’m used to staying in the bush and doing my job and my beat. As long as I go home sometimes to see my family, it’s ok for me. The animals need my love. As a woman, I feel proud for myself. When I wake up in the morning, I’m like, ‘Wow, it’s me doing this.’ We are sending a message to young women that they must stand up and do things for themselves.”
Mzimba, who says she has loved animals and nature all her life, feels much the same.
“It’s ok,” she says of the job’s sacrifices, “because I’m trying to save animals. Now it is our time. It is our time as ladies to protect nature and make sure everything is better than before.”
She says she has two messages for her community – one for those who support conservation, and another for those working against it.
Siphewe Sithole with local students
Felicia Mogahane with local students
“To people who love nature, let’s save our wildlife animals. Let’s protect them for future generations’ sake. Because we love it, and I’m 100 percent sure that future generations will also love nature. So let’s do this for them.”
Mzimba pauses a moment, and then continues. “To poachers, you heartbreakers, you heartless people, stop poaching the rhinos. Because sooner or later, you will be poached.”
About the animals they are saving, another Mamba says, “They are just like us. They want love.”
Now it is our time. It is our time as ladies to protect nature and make sure everything is better than before.
She tells the story of one rhino in particular, a male whose mate was shot and killed by poachers. Ever since, he has avoided the place where the shooting happened.
“I can feel that he’s feeling pain. I can say they are just like humans,” she says.
“When they hear our voices, they know it’s us, and we can see they are happy.”
Learn more and support The Black Mambas. Text by Corinne Benedict, photos by Jo-Anne McArthur.
All photos by Jo-Anne McArthur/Unbound Project except where indicated.
In 2017, the Unbound Project invited some of our featured women to apply for our first-ever round of grants to support projects aimed at helping farmed animals around the world. We awarded grants to women doing remarkable work to make real change for animals. We gave away a total of $100,000, with 10 grants of $10,000 each going towards funding innovative projects in eight countries.
Read the stories of the projects we’re funding and the women leading them below.
Note that any future Unbound Project Grants will also be awarded to applicants who are invited to submit funding proposals. We are not accepting unsolicited applications at this time.
2017 Unbound Project Grant Recipients
Pam Ahern – Australia
Ahern is the founder of Edgar’s Mission, a sanctuary for rescued farm animals and one of Australia’s most important voices in farm animal protection. The sanctuary is home to hundreds of animals and also runs animal protection and vegan advocacy campaigns and events on-site and around the country. Ahern’s 2017 Unbound Project Grant will go towards funding a cross-country speaking tour in Australia where she will share the story of starting a sanctuary farm sanctuary and dedicating her life to animal
Check back in 2018 for Ahern’s full Unbound profile.
Piia Anttonen – Finland
Anttonen runs Tuulispää Animal Sanctuary in Finland, a sanctuary she founded in 2012 after pledging to always help the animals most in need, the elderly, the sick, the abused, and the neglected. Anttonen’s 2017 Unbound Project Grant will go towards stepping up her sanctuary’s vegan advocacy with the creation of an on-site education centre to host plant-based cooking classes, film screenings, speakers, school visits, and community events.
Argo became a filmmaker almost by accident as she sought a way to speak for those who could not tell their own stories. “I look for those who are struggling – for survival or freedom or simply for dignity and respect,” she says. Argo’s latest film, documentary The Last Pig tells the story of a pig farmer who, after a change of heart, sent his remaining animals to sanctuaries and moved to plant-based farming. Argo’s 2017 Unbound Project Grant will be used to promote the film.
Boswell founded and runs Penny Lane Farm Sanctuary in Canada. Almost an accidental activist, she started the sanctuary after moving to a rural area and being shocked by the treatment of horses sold (generally for horsemeat) at auctions. Today Penny Lane is an important voice for horses and other farmed animals in Canada. Boswell’s 2017 Unbound Project Grant will go towards the construction of a visitor barn and educational space at the sanctuary’s new location, allowing visitors and school children to learn about the sanctuary’s animal residents and the industries that abuse countless animals just like them each year.
Casteñeda-Turner is the founding director of Juliana’s Animal Sanctuary, which she officially opened in 2008. The sanctuary is now home to more than 80 rescued animals—most of them farm animals—and also runs education and vegan outreach programs. Casteñeda-Turner’s 2017 Unbound Project grant will go towards expanding the sanctuary’s educational outreach and providing free vegan resources to schools in Colombia.
Read Casteñeda-Turner’s full Unbound profile here.
Josie Du Toit – South Africa
Josie Du Toit
Du Toit is Co-Director of the Vervet Monkey Foundation in South Africa. Born and raised in England, Du Toit’s early love for animals led her to volunteer and work full time at the African sanctuary she’s now called home for more than ten years. Under Du Toit’s leadership, the vervet sanctuary has also developed a vegan outreach program, and the 2017 Unbound Project Grant will be used to build an on-site kitchen to host vegan cooking classes for volunteers, community members, and chefs from local schools.
Gogłoza is the co-founder of Otwarte Klatki (branded as Open Cages internationally), the Polish organization driving change for animals in Eastern Europe. Gogłoza’s group focuses its energy on campaigns and projects that will have the maximum impact for animals. Her 2017 Unbound Project Grant will go towards a high-impact plant-based advocacy campaign in Estonia.
Labchuk is Executive Director of Animal Justice, Canada’s only legal advocacy organization for animals. A lifelong activist, Labchuk made the decision to become a lawyer in order to fight for greater legal and political protections for animals. Since its foundation, Animal Justice has quickly become one of the leading national voices for animals in Canada. Labchuk and Animal Justice will use the 2017 Unbound Project Grant to increase their federal political outreach and bring media attention to the need for federal protections for farm animals.
Smaragda Louw with members of the Ban Animal Trading team
Smaragda Louw – South Africa
Louw co-founded Ban Animal Trading (BAT) in 2013 and the group has quickly made a name for itself in animal protection in South Africa. Louw’s group has a broad focus and a relentless drive to keep conducting new investigations, launching new campaigns, and generally keep animal issues in the public eye. Louw and BAT will use their 2017 Unbound Project Grant to fund investigative work on farms through 2018.
When Zhang watched a documentary about the brutal treatment of farm animals, she knew she had to take action. She started VegPlanet, a website that shares news and resources about living a vegan lifestyle –– one of the first of its kind in China. Today, Zhang’s site has hundreds of thousands of followers and a growing team of full-time staff. She and her team will use the 2017 Unbound Project Grant to host a series of simultaneous vegan events, promoting them online and in the media to increase public awareness of the benefits of plant-based diets.