From the War in Iraq to the War against Poaching

Damien Mander’s fight to protect African wildlife

Eight years ago, Damien Mander was trekking through the bush in Zimbabwe when he saw something harrowing — a half-dead buffalo floundering on the ground, trying to free herself from a wire snare gripping her legs. The ranger accompanying Mander said the buffalo must have been there for three days.

photo of Damien manderPhoto by Erico HillerConservation wasn’t always at the forefront of Damien Mander’s life, but he found new purpose in the fight to protect wildlife in Southern Africa.

“She’d ripped her pelvis in half,” Mander, a 38-year-old Australian conservationist, told me when we met in Washington DC. “Up close, you could hear the bones grinding against each other. She wanted to be put out of her misery, so we did it.”

The ranger raised his rifle and shot the buffalo, and as the life went out of her, she gave birth to a stillborn calf. Mander often refers to this moment — as well as the time he came across a dead elephant with its tusks hacked from its face — as what spurred him to action. In 2009, he founded the International Anti-Poaching Foundation (IAPF), an organization dedicated to protecting African wildlife. “I saw a problem and I wanted to do something about it,” Mander said. “So this was my solution.”

Conservation wasn’t always at the forefront of Mander’s life. Prior to founding the IAPF, he spent ten years in the military. Mander, who hails from Mornington, Victoria, joined the Royal Australian navy as a clearance diver when he was 19; then he trained to become a sniper for a special operations unit. In 2005, he left for Iraq, where he worked as part of a management team that trained Iraqi special police for war. Each of these training sessions lasted only six weeks.

“Six weeks is not enough time [for those] who have an almost-zero background in what we’re about to ask them to do — to go into a war zone,” Mander said. “So three things happened to those people — they either deserted, joined the militia and fought back against us, or they got killed.”

By 2008, Mander had completed 12 tours of Iraq, and the nature of the work had taken a toll on him. “I ended up in South America,” Mander said. “I went off the rails. Lots of drugs and alcohol.” But Mander eventually pulled his life back together, and found new purpose with his mission to protect African wildlife.

photo of rhino Photo by Erico HillerIn South Africa alone, more than 7,000 rhinos have been killed in the past decade.

Mander may have left the military, but he brought his military training to IAPF, an organization dedicated to training rangers to use militaristic tactics to protect wildlife — and Mander’s skills came in handy. Poachers themselves often use paramilitary strategies to track down and kill wildlife, Mander explained, so rangers need the same kinds of skills to stop them — and to protect themselves while protecting animals. With this in mind, IAPF has helped train hundreds of rangers in Zimbabwe, Mozambique and South Africa, and IAPF is working to expand into other countries like Malawi and Kenya. (Read about an unarmed anti-poaching unit taking a different approach in South Africa.)

Yet Mander is quick to explain that training rangers alone is not — and can never be — the only way to solve the problem. “Training should not be delivered as a stand-alone operation for rangers,” Mander said. “It boosts morale for a short period of time, but then the trainer leaves, the ranger go back to work for their boss, and the boss doesn’t know how to utilize the new tool that they’ve been given.”

The solution, Mander believes, is leadership training. And lots of it. If leaders are armed with skills and knowledge, and know how to efficiently manage a team of rangers, conservation efforts become more effective, according to Mander. “There’s no such thing as bad soldiers — only bad generals,” Mander said. “We need better leaders in terms of law enforcement.”

Mander also thinks that it rangers should receive ongoing training from their immediate managers. “[Rangers] are expected to know and learn and maintain a multitude of skills — everything from human rights to ‘search and arrest’ to weapons skills to camouflage and concealment and how to deal with every animal that’s out in the bush,” Mander said. “These are perishable skills — they need to be continually taught and updated.”

Throughout Africa, the fight against poaching is a constant, and often losing, battle. In South Africa alone, more than 7,137 rhinos have been killed in the past ten years. And elephant populations are plummeting too — it’s estimated that one elephant dies every 15 minutes for its ivory. Despite the massive challenges, Mander remains hopeful, and he believes that the IAPF is playing a big role in reducing poaching in Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and South Africa. “I sleep at night knowing the situation would be much worse if we weren’t doing what we’re doing,” Mander said. “These animals get to live their lives because of the work we’re doing.”

In 2015, the IAPF also started working with the Mozambique government to secure the border of Kruger National Park, which is home to 40 percent of the world’s rhinos, and as a result, attracts a lot of poaching activity. “Efforts of the combined forces on the Mozambique side of the border have allowed Kruger to re-deploy their forces elsewhere in the park,” Mander explained.

Mander, who lives in a remote part of the Zimbabwe with his wife and four-year-old son, lives and breathes the work of IAPF. Not only does he play a pivotal role in the day-to-day operations of the organization, he carries the burden of doing a lot of fundraising. IAPF doesn’t spend any money on promotion and marketing, so the organization relies on word of mouth to attract funding. When he isn’t out in the bush, Mander is traveling the world to spread awareness about IAPF’s work. “If I don’t do my job, animals die,” Mander said.

So passionate in his mission, Mander even found himself questioning his own eating habits, becoming vegan four years ago. While this may seem unrelated to the protection of African wildlife, Mander draws a close parallel. “I was walking around the bush, protecting animals and rhinos, and I was coming home and eating cows and chickens and pigs,” Mander said. “What I actually believed and what I was doing were heading in two different directions. So I made a call to be consistent in my morals.”

Mander calls his decision to go vegan “the most worthwhile thing [he’s] ever done,” and advocates the diet as the most effective way to help animals. “The meat industry’s the greatest cause of animal suffering on this planet,” he said. “The easiest way to protect animals is not to put them in your mouth.”

To some, Mander may seem like an idealist; to others, he’s one of the most courageous, effectual, and ethical leaders in conservation — the kind of fearless warrior we need to protect fragile populations of Africa’s endangered wildlife. “I wouldn’t even hypothesize what the future would look like without them,” Mander said. “It’s not something that I’m willing to consider.”

If you’re interested in learning more about IAPF’s work and how you can get involved, you can visit their website.

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