By Paul Caine
Damien Mander is a former Australian Royal Navy Clearance Diver and special operations military sniper. By 2008, after 12 tours in Iraq helping protect diplomats and train the Iraqi police – each tour lasting from six weeks to three months – he had seen enough death and destruction.
After unwinding from the war in the bars of South America, where he says he was really down and doing too many drugs, a chance encounter in a bar back home in Australia was to change his life.
He learned of the scourge of poaching in Africa and figured a person with his special set of skills might be able to do some good.
“I had two things,” Mander said. “I had money that I’d made during my time in the military and the war in Iraq and I had a very niche skill set which was most appropriately relevant to looking after these animals, so I decided to do something about it.”
Mander went to Africa in 2009. It was originally supposed to be a six-month adventure but he says it triggered what he calls “an awakening.”
“I went to Africa looking for a fight, not a cause, but then started to really see what was going on with these animals,” Mander said. “(I) became more aware of the suffering of animals not only in the national parks and reserves of Africa but across the planet.”
His time in Iraq had been lucrative and enabled him to buy several properties in Australia. But after seeing the carnage wrought by poachers, he decided to liquidate his assets and used the funds to found the International Anti-Poaching Foundation.
Unlike other anti-poaching efforts, the IAPF focuses on training rangers in the tactics of modern warfare used by elite special forces.
“We function very much like a special operations unit,” Mander said. “We will come into big, nasty situations and solve those big problems with small, very niche, highly-skilled manpower and minimal resources.”
Ultimately for Mander, this is a case where you have to fight fire with fire.
“You can package it up any way you like but what we are dealing with is a paramilitary operation,” Mander said. “You’ve got armed insurgents crossing an international border coming over to hunt species like elephant and rhino – that’s environmental terrorism. It requires a certain set of skills to be able to go out and stop that.”
Although some critics have attacked what they view as Mander’s overly aggressive tactics, he is unapologetic about his methods. He emphasizes that with Rhino horn selling for as much as $35,000 a pound, poachers are not poor African farmers trying to put food on the table, but part of a vast criminal enterprise.
“In Southern Africa a lot of the poachers that we are dealing with see rhino horn and ivory as just another commodity,” Mander said. “Whether they are dealing with child prostitution, guns, drugs, human-trafficking – this is just another way for them to make money.”
And Mander’s approach seems to be getting results. He notes that in South Africa’s Kruger National Park, where his rangers have been operating along the border for the past 18 months, there has been a dramatic decline in poaching.
Kruger National Park has more rhinos than anywhere else in the world, and poaching there until recently accounted for 70 percent of the rhinos being killed each year. Between 2010 and 2014 Mander says that incidents of poaching increased by an average of 55 percent each year.
“Last year, within the first six months of our arrival in Mozambique, and with the close cross-border cooperation with South Africa National parks and Mozambique forces, that plateaued off. This year, the government of South Africa through the Department of Environmental Affairs has announced a 23-percent reduction in rhino poaching in Kruger National Park.,” he said.
Most of the demand for rhino horn and ivory comes from Asia and Mander acknowledges that ultimately, reducing that demand is critical to saving endangered species. But he also recognizes that it is also very difficult.
He notes that in the case of rhino horn, its use in traditional Vietnamese and Chinese medicine goes back 3,000 years.
“It’s not something that a Westerner jumping up and down on a soapbox is going to be able to change overnight. It’s like trying to change DNA.”
But until that demand is curtailed, Mander will continue with his approach, tackling the problem at what he calls “the coalface.”
“Another conference or another billboard in Asia is not going to save one of these animals today,” Mander says. “The harsh reality of the situation we have is that the only thing that is going to protect one of these animals is a good person with a gun standing there in the bush between that animal and the poacher.”