By STEWART PERRIE – LADBible
Damien Mander had a promising future at his feet several years ago.
The Australian had just wrapped up a three year stint in Iraq where he trained and deployed para-military forces to the front lines of the war. Before that, he was an Australian Navy Clearance Diver and special operations sniper in the Army’s Special Forces 2nd Commando Regiment,.
The 40-year-old had an impressive property portfolio and he could have moved back to Australia and continued going down that path.
However, a trip to Africa following his tour of the Middle East opened his eyes to the horrific world of poaching.
Damien has told LADbible: “After Iraq I was looking for the next adventure and [a trip to Africa] just seemed like it was going to be a six-month thing to do.
“When I travelled around the continent, I was inspired by the work that the rangers were doing.
“They have something really worthwhile fighting for: giving up everything, being away from their family for so long each year defending the natural world. I had just come from Iraq where we were looking after dotted lines on a map and resources in the ground and it made me reflect on who I was as a person.”
After touring through South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe, he fell in love with protecting animals and decided to dedicate his life and all his money to stopping the forces that track, hunt and sell animals, and animal parts, to hungry buyers.
He sold all his investment properties and poured the money into creating the International Anti-Poaching Foundation and a ranger training academy in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe.
The Foundation teaches rangers how to ambush, patrol, track, arrest, preserve a crime scene, and camouflage and conceal. While his sniper skills were essential during anti-poaching ranger training, there was something from Damien’s previous career that was much more valuable.
He tells us: “Beyond the guns and ammo are the lessons I learned in Iraq that have really been the biggest benefit to what we do.”
“The ability to get the local population on side, get the hearts and minds, that’s more important than anything else and it’s something that we completely failed at in Iraq. We’re able to take those failures from Iraq and turn them into a positive.”
After training his anti-poaching force and building up his arsenal, Damien focused his energy on the Mozambique side of the Kruger National Park border. He targeted this area because it helped protect a third of the world’s population of rhinos from a massive proportion of the poaching syndicates.
He planned his next steps very carefully before launching a massive ground-level offensive against some of the poaching groups.
Mr Mander noticed a 90 per cent drop in the amount of rhino poaching in that area following the offensive. Eventually, they were able to almost stop poachers from coming into the region altogether.
In 2016, for the first time in a decade, there was the first drop in international rhino poaching due to the combined efforts on both sides of the border.
“The rate of incursions of poachers into Kruger National Park, about 75 per cent of those were attributed as coming from Mozambique into Kruger and with the operations established on that side of the border, that dropped to around 30 per cent,” Mr Mander said.
“We got a lot of credit for that, got a lot of kudos.”
Further north in Zimbabwe’s Victoria Falls, the IAPF has protected the only population of rhino in the country, which has sustained no losses for eight years.
You’d think having a huge drop in animal deaths would make Damien a king in these areas, but it wasn’t that simple.
He tells us: “We had helicopters, drones, canine attack teams, military grade hardware [but] we had this ongoing conflict with the local population and while we might have won that battle overall, what we were doing was not sustainable.
“We were saving rhinos and we were having a war with the local population on a continent that is going to have two billion people on it by 2040.”
He realised that it would be better to change his tactics than continue down the path of waging conflict after conflict. So, Damien decided he needed to change the attitudes about these beautiful animals within the countries that International Anti-Poaching Foundation was embedded in.
This has included getting women involved in the anti-poaching effort.
Mr Mander started training units of female rangers three years ago, who have become the first team of armed all-female rangers in the world. Many of the women included in the group are victims of serious sexual assault or domestic violence, single mothers or abandoned wives, or AIDS orphans.
He said in an op-ed: “I’d never worked with women in the military and have built a career over two decades across three continents by bringing hardened men to the point of breaking, and then rebuilding them into what we needed on the front lines.
“Not once, ever, did a woman feature in that equation. It would be an understatement to say that at the beginning of this program, I was in uncharted waters.”
But they managed to surprise him with their perseverance and now outperform many other units across the continent with 140 arrests already under their belt since inception. The female ranger group started with just 16 rangers and has already grown to 120, and will hopefully boast 280 by the end of the year.
“The data we’ve got, we’ve been able to see 80 per cent reduction in elephant poaching across this region of the Zambezi Valley and, again, we can’t take full credit for that but the amount of arrests we’re making and work we’re doing in the communities is attributed towards that impact,” he tells us.
Damien will keep fighting for these animals and the people of Africa, but he has one message for people out there that are interested in or want to profit from the poaching industry.
“We are one of millions of species on this planet but we’re the only one that determines what level of suffering and destruction is acceptable for all others,” he said.
“We sit here talking about different species going extinct but the reality is if we don’t look after this one beautiful backyard we’ve been given it’s not the elephant or the rhino that’s going extinct; it’ll be us.
“We need to decide if we want to be part of the future and if we do, we need to make changes.”