(TMU) — Australian combat veteran Damien Mander had a world of options before him after he returned from his tour of the Middle East.
But the former special ops warfighter chose to devote his life to defending helpless wild animals from facing slaughter at the hands of illegal poachers.
Damien Mander had completed three years in Iraq where he trained and deployed paramilitary forces to the front lines of combat.
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The toughest journeys are the least pursued ones, but they are the most rewarding. A comfortable life is a dangerous life, and I highly advise against it. Out there, amongst it all, awaits an unbiased and blank canvas. A path that is yet to be carved. A life that is yet to be lived. A story waiting to be written. To walk a beaten track is to follow in familiar footsteps. At some point, if you want to search for something undiscovered, that safe, easy to follow path has to be abandoned. And then shit gets real. Then life really starts. – – Many grey hairs ago… In a galaxy far, far away, September 11 changed the world for a lot of people. It changed the world for me. As a response, the Australian government formed Tactical Assault Group-East (TAG-E). A special operations, direct action and hostage recovery unit. After enduring the mental torture of selection, I came across to TAG-E from the Navy into Water Platoon. I’d been there only two days before being told I was being sent to sniper school. Talk about a fish (Navy Diver) out of water. The Army lads beat me into shape pretty quickly in what I’d say would be the most extreme learning curve I’ve ever encountered.- – Special operations gave me the qualifications I needed to head to Iraq as a private contractor. Iraq gave me the money, life lessons and desperation needed to set up the IAPF. IAPF gave me the purpose I needed to be all I could dream to be in life. – – We all have a path waiting to be carved. And no one will do it for us. If they try – run. Only you can cut your own path. Anything handed to you is a disservice. – – #ClearanceDiver #IAPF #AntiPoaching #Purpose #Vegan #PlantBased #Nature #Sniper #SpecialOperations #Dream #Animals
Before that, he had served as a special operations sniper in the Australian Army’s Special Forces 2nd Commando Regiment, as well as a Navy Clearance Diver—the Royal Australian Navy equivalent to the U.S. Navy SEALs.
The 40-year-old could well have transitioned into a life of leisure since he had an impressive property portfolio back home.
Instead, Mander visited Africa for a six-month tour where he was exposed to the bloody world of illegal animal poaching in a journey through South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.
The eye-opening experience changed his life forever and convinced the veteran to devote his life to protecting wild creatures with no means to protect themselves from those who would track, hunt, and slaughter them and their parts for any price.
“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.“
It was at that point when the animal-loving war vet decided to sell off all of his properties back home to fund his new passion project: International Anti-Poaching Foundation (IAPF) and a ranger training academy in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe.
Just as he once trained militia forces in Iraq his foundation now teaches rangers how to covertly track poachers, remain cloaked and camouflaged, conduct ambushes, carry out arrests, and preserve crime scenes.
While the work clearly draws from Mander’s military skills as a fighter, one of the most essential tools was one he learned during his occupation duties in the war-torn Middle East: to win over the hearts and minds of an often-hostile local population, a problem his military “failed” to grasp during the war.
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Earlier this year, Matt Shapira's beautiful artwork and generosity helped raise many yearly salaries for new recruits! Matt's elephant painting on a vintage map made it all the way to Zimbabwe, thanks to Erin Haley. She attended a fundraising event in Colorado hosted by Next Wave Impact and was outbid on one of Matt’s paintings. Afterwards, she got in touch with us to ask if she could commission a painting with her donation. Matt agreed. When it was ready to be shipped, she decided to gift it to the rangers as a token of appreciation for doing one of the hardest jobs there is: saving the natural world. The painting will be hanging in the new ops center being built as we speak. One of our goals is to create a reality in which elephants are treated as carefully as one of these century year-old vintage maps. Elephants, like any species, should be allowed to live out their lives as they wish, to their fullest extent. IAPF is hard at work, making this a reality for more and more wildlife each day. Happy World Elephant Day! #IAPF #Akashinga #WorldElephantDay #talesleftunsaid #elephants #africanelephant #trunksup #elephantlovers #jointheherd #conservation #savetheelephants #saynotopoaching #elephantlove #wildlifeconservation #endwildlifecrime #thisisafrica #bekindtoelephants #saveelephants #worthmorealive #stoppoaching @roaming__elephant @africanveganonabudget @damien_mander @kellyhazelking
“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.“
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The chances of being born are about 1 in 400 trillion. Nothing memorable before or after life is certain. All that is certain is that if we’re here, we already won the jackpot. – Nature has had billions of years to evolve. We only have a lifetime. A few decades to cut away the bits that don’t work, keep the bits that do, live, learn, grow and march forward with absolute passion and purpose. Then it’s over. Don’t waste it. – #OneLife #OnePlanet #Earth #Nature #Environment #Vegan #Wildlife #Conservation #Purpose #Live – Picture @BrentStirton
So far his efforts have seen a 90 percent drop in rhino poaching activities in Kruger National Park—which lies along South Africa’s border with Mozambique—where the creatures are coveted by buyers and dealers for their valuable horns. Mander’s team was eventually able to drive out poachers entirely.
By 2016, rhino poaching had finally begun to drop for the first time in a decade. Mander said:
“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.
We got a lot of credit for that, got a lot of kudos.“
Further north in Zimbabwe’s Victoria Falls all attacks on rhinos were put to a halt thanks to the IAPF. However, there was no shortage of friction between the Aussie adventurer and poor locals.
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FIELD REPORT: Recently the International Anti-Poaching Foundation’s (IAPF) Akashinga rangers intercepted a team of three suspected poachers entering Zimbabwe’s World Heritage Listed Mana Pools National Park armed with cyanide, axes and knives. Further information passed to the Akashinga team resulted in a joint operation with the Minerals Flora & Fauna Unit (MFFU) of the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP), netting the arrest of a fourth suspect who allegedly supplied the cyanide to the would be poachers. Cyanide is sometimes used to kill elephants and other wildlife without force as it is cheap and quiet to use. It is placed near watering holes, on oranges or rock salt where the unsuspecting animals will be baited. The suspect being implicated of supplying the cyanide works in Mberengwa’s mining industry. Miners use cyanide concentrate during the separation process of gold from bulk ores. It exists in two forms, gas and crystal (see small white ‘balloons’ confiscated in photo above). This inhumane method of poaching works quickly, as cyanide cuts off the oxygen supply. Cyanide use in poaching is an ongoing problem in Zimbabwe so these types of arrests are a significant ‘win’ for wildlife. Cyanide is easily obtained illegally, so monitoring and protecting these areas remains a vigilant task. The suspects will appear in Kariba Magistrates Court. Thank you to all those involved in this operation. To support our continued work, please follow link in bio. #IAPF #Akashinga #antipoaching #rangers #wildlife #conservation #zimparks #racingextinction #savetheelephants #elephants #womenempowerment #womenwholead #africa #socialmovements #illegalwildlifetrade #stopivorytrade
For Mander, the problems of prolonged conflict had begun to reveal themselves and it was necessary to change the strategic approach. He explained:
“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.“
To get the support of the locals Mander decided to begin integrating female rangers into his team. Many of them are themselves victims of predatory attacks such as serious sexual assault, domestic violence, and gender violence in their communities.
The all-female units are now the most elite force within the foundation with 120 rangers having already carried out 140 arrests.
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Throwback Thursday alert! Remember when these amazing LEADRangers graduated? Here they are, celebrating right after the ceremony. We’re immensely proud that all participants persevered through to completion of the course. This is commendable, as there was a stringent selection process prior to attending—and the standards and pace remain high the whole time. After the graduation ceremony, they each returned to their own units across the continent as qualified instructors and leaders, ready to work with and train their fellow rangers with new lifesaving skills so they can more effectively end poaching and degradation of wild lands. Visit the link in our bio to learn more about their training, graduation, and a recap of what they've accomplished with their time at our LEADRanger facility. LEADRanger empowers the next generation of frontline conservation leaders. It is a collaborative initiative of @int.anti.poaching.foundation, the @thingreenlinefoundation, and @rangercampus. @lead_ranger @rangerboris @dominiquenoome ___________________ #IAPF #Akashinga #LEADRanger #TBT #throwbackthursday #standwithrangers #leadership #antipoaching #rangers #wildlife #conservation #racingextinction #elephants #wildlifeconservation #inspiration #animallove #protect #leadbyexample #theresnoiinteam #wildlifeprotection #lawenforcement #humanrights #savetheelephants #thisisafrica #illegalwildlifetrade #saynotoivory #defender #endwildlifecrime #myafrica #endangeredspecies
Mander has a sharp message and basic appeal to the humanity of the poachers. He said:
“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.
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.“