Lena Karbe, a smiling woman with long blonde hair, stands in front of a window

Lena Karbe (2011, MSt Film Aesthetics) picked up a raft of prizes and nominations in 2022 and 2023 for her documentary film, BLACK MAMBAS – including the prestigious Social Justice Award at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. The film reveals a little-known clash at the heart of South African environmentalism, as Lena explains below in an article taken from the recent edition of LMH News.

“BLACK MAMBAS explores a sensitive theme: the conflict between the need to conserve nature and the need for a local population, in this case in South Africa, to survive by using nature’s resources. It’s a conflict represented in my film by rangers on one side and poachers on the other, both from the same communities. With BLACK MAMBAS, I wanted to tell a story of animal protection through the impact it has on humans.

I found out about the Black Mambas – an all-female anti-poaching unit – through my interest in nature conservation. I was reading about the Kruger National Park and came across a fact that I found really striking: there are about three million people living in local, majority-Black, communities bordering the Kruger Park, and about 80-90% of those people are unemployed.

These communities have little connection to nature protection. I heard it described as a ‘white man’s thing’. Most poachers in the area come from these communities, particularly the bushmeat poachers, who hunt not for high value species, but for species like antelopes, which are used for food.

And yet nature conservation has to be a huge issue for local people, because the park is one of the only sources of food and employment in the region. So while communities have been historically alienated from conservation and continue to be today, they rely on the natural resources that surround them. It is ironic how a big part of the Black Mambas’ job is to promote environmental patriotism, even in communities where most people live in poverty and do not benefit from the wildlife economy.

This multi-layered conflict – how the female rangers protect nature from the people of their own communities, while themselves having little personal connection to the park – immediately raised my interest. I felt that, alongside the spectacular personal journeys of these women, a bigger story needed to be told, showing the social context of conservation from a post-colonial perspective.

BLACK MAMBAS is primarily a reflection on value: the value of people and of animals in the eyes of society. I am very glad that the film still makes its way to its audiences worldwide, a year after its first distribution. It has been shown in more than 30 countries so far and it is a great honour to have received awards everywhere from Italy to California."

We get to experience the struggles and empowerment of young women against the persisting power structures, within the frame of race, family dynamics and the tight grip of colonialism that refuses to let go.

CPH:DOX film festival jury statement on BLACK MAMBAS