Damien has lived an extraordinary life for a 37 year old. At 19, as a garbage collector in Melbourne he joined the Australian Defense Force, graduating through one of the most arduous courses as a RAN clearance diver. With the ADF’s counterterrorism restructure following 9-11, Damien joined the elite TAG-East force, training as a sniper. Later as a private contractor he deployed to Iraq where he project managed the Iraq Special Police Training Academy overseeing training and deployment of local troops. After three years in Iraq, he left the front lines with no direction in life. A trip to Africa in 2009 awakened him to the horrors the natural world is facing from poaching. Recognizing the unique skills he possessed by virtue of his training and experience in military roles, Damien liquidated his savings, and founded the International Anti- Poaching Foundation (IAPF). Now a multinational not-for-profit, the IAPF runs operations on the front lines of the world wildlife wars, protecting iconic endangered species from slaughter by poachers. Using battle- proven tactics, training and technology in what is effectively a counterinsurgency operation the IAPF has recently demonstrated striking success in Mozambique. Operating in the most critical area on earth for rhino protection, losses have been reduced by over 80%.
Caryn: Okay everybody, are you ready? Drum roll…We have Damien Mander in the studio with us just came in and I am very grateful form him. And to be able to look him in the eye. We’re going to talk a little bit about looking me in the eye in a moment. He is a former Australian Royal Navy Clearance Diver and Special Operations Military Sniper turned anti-poaching crusader. An environmental and animal welfare activist, Mander is outspoken about the priorities of mankind in an increasingly challenged society. He frequently advocates for the use of military equipment and tactics for the purpose of protecting animals including the use of unmanned aerial vehicles. Mander used his life savings and liquidated his investments and assets to fund the start-up and running costs of the International Anti-Poaching Foundation, an organization dedicated to the protection and preservation of wildlife in some of the world’s most volatile regions. His personal evolution has seen him recognize the need for protection of all animals, not just from an ethical standpoint, but also from a global environmental perspective. A public speaker, Mander is a vegan who actively encourages his audience to hold back the tide of human encroachment and correct the imbalance between dwindling wilderness areas and rapidly increasing human populations. Wow. Welcome to It’s All About Food.
Damien: Good day, Caryn how are you doing mate?
Caryn: Good. So how long have you been in New York?
Damien: I have been here, I’m in the jungle at the moment, I fly back to Zimbabwe tomorrow and then I’ll be in my natural habitat there. Where the nearest traffic light to me is 300 miles away. I’ve been here for three weeks doing lectures around New York. Been borrowing and stealing money from diners. Some of them old, some of them new. Took a trip out to DC and yeah, I travel for three reasons: one is to bring awareness to the cause, not just the animals we protect, the second is to ask for help and the third is to tell people about return on investments. So, when I have put money into our operations, what has that money done and what’s been said.
Caryn: Well we’re going to talk about your organization in a minute. You know, I just mentioned looking in your eyes. Here we are in the concrete jungle. I grew up in New York and one of the things I was taught as a youngster was when I was in Manhattan, which was a little more dangerous when I was younger than it appears to be today. I was told not to look at strangers in the eye as I was walking down the street. Not to engage with them. Part of that was because you couldn’t trust them and there was danger whatever, but I think that it’s important to look in people’s eyes. We can learn so much when we engage with people. Following through with that, looking in the eyes of non-human animals and how important that is and what we can learn from them. I know people will say anthropomorphism and I say anthropomorphism, anthro-schmorphism. I see so much intelligence, I see so much life, I see so much integrity when I have the opportunity to look into a non-human animal. I imagine you’ve looked into the eyes of a few in Zimbabwe and around.
Damien: I certainly do. Some of them are quite dangerous though so I try not to hang around for too long. Especially being an Aussie and growing up in a place where kangaroos and possums don’t carry such a great threat then all of the sudden you’re in the African bush and you’ve got lions and buffalo and elephant and rhino and a myriad of other handsome little creatures that are out there trying to rip you apart or step on you. Not because they want to but because they may assume you to be a threat. You know, that’s the very special thing about the rangers we support out there on the front lines, is the biggest threat they face is not the poachers they’re trying to stop, it’s the actual animals they’re trying to protect. Rangers give up everything in their lives to live out in the bush. Often spending up to 11 months of the year away from their families. They take home a very small paycheck. But I think they do one of the most important jobs in the world- protecting the heart and lungs of the planet. We develop systems that protect some of the hardest and most targeted animals, usually being an elephant because of the value of it’s tusk in Asia or the rhino because of the value of it’s horn in Asia. When we develop and implement a strategy to protect those animals everything else in that ecosystem is being looked after. I’m literally talking about millions of other little creatures and the trees and the waterways, but unfortunately to protect those two key species requires rangers who are out there capable of using militarized tactics. That is unfortunate but it’s the world we’ve created for ourselves to manage.
Caryn: I remember seeing a video recently in Yellowstone National Park where they re-introduced foxes I think that hadn’t been there, and how so many things in the environment returned in addition to the waterways and the rivers and the other species that returned to the area. When we’re eliminating species, we’re devastating the area.
Damien: Yeah that was wolf, the re-introduction of wolves. It completely changes the ecosystem and the dynamics within that ecosystem. It just shows you that something or one species that we may perceive to be insignificant to the overall balance, it shows you how interlinked everything is including us humans.
Caryn: OK lets back up. You have an incredible history and then you had a life altering change. So, you’ve been in Iraq- 12 tours?
Damien: Yeah, 12 tours of varying lengths. Some were short some were long but 2005, 2006, 2007 were spent over there rolling around in the sand pit.
Caryn: I know a lot of people who spent time over there seeing war and seeing the unfortunate things that they see, don’t come back in a mentally stable way after seeing so much misfortune.
Damien: Yeah, it’s a tough one and a lot of listeners out there will respect that being Americans and whether or not they know it, 22 U.S veterans commit suicide a day, a day. That’s unacceptable. More needs to be done to help support these people that have put their life on the line for what they were sent over there for. Whether good or whether bad. For a lot of these guys and girls, when you leaves these places, when you leave such tight knit groups of people that are looking after your life more than you care about yourself. I spent nine years in real life that kids can do on a PlayStation. Then it all stops and you’re supposed to try to re-integrate back into society. For a lot of people, the war doesn’t start until the bullets stop and you try to come home and there’s not jobs for a sniper in the local newspaper when you come back. I ended up in South America. Got pretty messed up on drugs and alcohol. Trying to put things back together. I managed to pull myself together after almost a year over there and jump on a one-way ticket to Africa to go and have a look. See what was going on over there. I didn’t join the military to serve my country; I joined it because it was adventure. I didn’t go to Iraq to help the situation, I did it for money. I didn’t go to Africa looking for a cause, I went there looking for a fight. Some things started to happen over there that changed my self-absorbed plan.
Caryn: So you had this epiphany and you made this transition and you found your life’s path.
Damien: It wasn’t necessarily and epiphany- there was a couple of key moments along the way. You’re talking about a lifetime of a bullshit facade that I put up around myself being broken down. I used to be a hunter and not just a hunter, the worst kind. The kind that did it for fun, not for food. I had no respect for animals or the environment. I had zero compassion. Did my time in Iraq and started wearing away at this macho armor plating that I had around myself. My life was about me and how can I impress my friends or do the next most challenging thing or get the next adrenaline rush. Iraq chipped away a lot of that. South America made me look very hard at myself. What was I doing? Then coming to Africa and seeing the hard work these rangers were doing and there was me trying to have an adventure on the back of their hard work. It made me realize that was a pretty low thing to be doing. The second thing I saw, alongside the hard work of those rangers, was what was happening to animals. I don’t know what it was but it started affecting me in a way that nothing I’d seen before. It had affected me in a way that wouldn’t have affected me a decade earlier, but that’s what happens when you go through life- things start to change. Sometimes for the better and I think enough armor fell off me along the way to actually open up and realize there’s a real need for help of these animals that are being targeted. An animal like an elephant gets killed, the size of a truck, for something it can hold in one hand. Animals don’t want cars, a house, a paycheck, they don’t want designer clothes or an iPhone, they don’t have egos- animals want to live. We as a species continually take that away from them. I had two things that are pretty niche but maybe unsavory set of skills and I had money. I got involved with real estate at a young age and had done quite well with my mercenary paycheck from Iraq. I decided to put it to something useful. I started this organization and nine years on we operate throughout Southern Africa. The rangers we help support help protect over 6 million acres of wilderness in which millions of animals live. We have currently got 5 of our own major campaigns running. We’ve had support put into 50 other programs on the ground. We’ve got the likes of Dr. Jane Goodall sitting as out patron on our advisory board. We are registered in 5 countries. So, we are certainly growing into a global organization that is able to provide the niche capabilities required to protect animals. Being the first and last line of defense for them out there in the bush.
Caryn: That was a lot to take in and it’s a pretty amazing story. Certainly glad you’re doing what you’re doing. We live in a capitalist society.
Damien: We certainly do!
Caryn: I’m not a supporter of capitalism but that’s where we are and I hope some day we figure out a new type of economic system that suits us, not only financially but socially. None of this would happen if we weren’t in a capitalistic society. Money is what’s behind all of this.
Damien: Money, greed, consumerism. I used to have 8 houses/apartments, property portfolio. I used to like taking the fancy holidays, the nice cars, and all that and I sold all that. I sold it all. Most of my personal possessions I can fit into a backpack. I said in 2010 when I finished spending all my own money when we did the interview with 60 minutes, I said I haven’t got much left in the bank but I’ve never felt richer. That stands true today. The important things in life are not things, they’re actions.
Caryn: Let’s talk about the poachers. What’s the motivation behind those who will kill a rhino for its horns?
Damien: Well firstly, they’re not poachers they’re criminals. Poaching is the way they make money. These are the same syndicates that are linked to, the same organized crime syndicates linked to child prostitution, drugs, guns, and human trafficking. Rhino horn and ivory is just another currency for them. Just yesterday, we had tracks following out from one of our operations. We followed those tracks to a local garbage dump. There was a vehicle there. The guys, our rangers approached the vehicle. As they approached the vehicle and cornered it off, this was at gunpoint; a 14-year-old girl jumped out of that vehicle and ran to the rangers. She had been abducted two days earlier and had been sexually assaulted for the previous two days. So those guys there are local heroes where they are. But, it just shows you the crossover and the types of people we’re dealing with. Their job is to poach and everything else they get involved in. Our job is to stop them.
Caryn: I’m always trying to dig the deepest that I can get to find the cause. For trying to make an analogy in some ways when we talk about health. So many people have heart disease and diabetes and they do because of what they eat. We’re going to talk in a minute about food. The real cause of disease for the most part is our lifestyle and the food that we’re eating. So, the real cause for these people who have chosen to be criminals and do what they do, there’s something else underlying that. Is that like some kind of poverty or…?
Damien: One of our operations where we work along the South African/Mozambique border. This is a border where up to 40% of the world’s rhinos are in that region. Some of the people we are arresting are getting paid a group up to $20,000 U.S. dollars a night. They’re driving around in brand new 4-wheel drives and some of them are living in two and three story houses. The ideological convenience of a poor African living in a mud hut doesn’t always apply. It’s nice to have that to try and give a level of comfort to some of the soft hearts out there but these are vicious criminals. They’re using military tactics and automatic weapons and heavy caliber rifles. They will come in and hunt a ranger- someone who is signed up to protect animals and protect the environment- they will hunt those people as much and they’ll hunt the animals they’re trying to kill. Do I have a soft heart for these people? Not really. Is it unfortunate that some of the countries we work in are some of the poorest and hardest to operate in on the planet? Yes it is. I go to work everyday knowing that what we do is not the solution. People working in Asia trying to reduce demand is critical. We don’t know how long that’s going to take. It could take one generation it could take twenty. People working in communities, some of these communities, trying to get them to a point where they don’t want to poach on a continent that’s going to have 2 billion people on it by 2040. That’s above my pay grade. I know it’s important, I know it’s critical. It’s not a Mozambique problem. It’s not a Zimbabwe problem or a South African problem. This is a global issue. Our job is to buy the people the whole government department, the university departments that are working on this- whatever these global solutions are- is to buy them time. Our job is to stop the hemorrhaging of wildlife within these protected areas and to hold onto as much of the natural world as possible. We’ve got some big issues. I think everybody knows about climate change, human population growth, deforestation, ocean acidification- these are things we know we need to get on top of but we just don’t know if we do something today how is that going to effect the big picture tomorrow? The most immediate thing we can do is to hold onto what we have left. That’s why the job of a ranger is so important.
Caryn: Now you’re taking advantage of technology in order to do your work.
Damien: When appropriate. People keep looking for a silver bullet in conservation and a silver bullet already exists. It’s a well-managed, well-led game ranger. When we get the first 90% of our formula right- which is making sure they believe their job is the most important job in the world- they will get up at any hour, motivated and go out there and risk their life. Only once you got that first 90% right can you start plugging in the fancy stuff- the analytics, the helicopters, the canine tracking units, the digital radio networks. There’s no point in having a drone that’s going to find something 50 miles away if you haven’t got a ground team that can respond. So many people try to jump to the last 10% because it sounds like something new and something fancy, something shiny. But, it comes down to basic soldiering in the bush. Good tracking, good intelligence and good discipline. Out there, you’re not going to find something sitting in an operation center trying to look through the lens of a drone that’s buzzing around. You actually need guys out there on the ground, looking for footprints because those footprints will lead you to poachers. That will get you to them before they get to the animal.
Caryn: I remember a few years ago reading a blog post where you talked about two rangers in Mozambique who had arrested some poachers and then they were attacked themselves. I don’t know how often this happens but it sounded like the whole village, this whole area that they went through attacked the rangers.
Damien: They were going through a very dangerous area, one of the townships there, which is known as a strong hold for some of the most successful rhino syndicates that are operating out of that region. That part of Africa is home to most of the rhino poachers in the world. That’s where they come from and they go across to South Africa, which has 83% of Africa’s rhinos. They’re going into the strong hold and we are taking money from organized crime. That is what rangers are doing. They’re stopping money from getting into the hands of organized crime that does not come without a consequence. It doesn’t make their job any less important or the protection of those animals any less required. It just means that when we sign on the dotted line and say we’re going to be a part of the solution, we’ve got to be ready for the consequences. These guys are. They have seen what’s happened. They go to the hospital, the go to the E.R and they get fixed and they get back out there. Sometimes they don’t. These rangers were transiting through this area and they had a mob of 60 people trying to kill them. One of our managers had an ax wound in their head; he got stabbed in the back of the neck. With so much experience you use the power rather than clear the mob away and touch down and pull these guys on board, they would not be alive today. 1,000 rangers have been killed over the last decade around the world.
Caryn: One of the things that you do is de-horning rhinos. How do you do that and how effective is that?
Damien: In the scope of what we do I would probably rate that at about half a percent of our overall picture. It’s a tool in the box for very select areas where we know we can de-horn 100% of the rhino and make it very public knowledge. Do-horning a rhino is like clipping a fingernail, it grows back, it doesn’t hurt the animal. They’re put to sleep during the process and it makes the animal less attractive to poachers. If you want to get into some of the bigger populations like the one were protecting down in South Africa, there’s not enough resources or logistics to de-horn all of those animals. Even if you could, that stuff is continuously growing back so the time you got halfway through it, it’d be time to go back to the start and go again. Poachers are going to come in; they’re going to track a rhino for a day or two. Eventually get there and it’s got no horn they’re going to shoot it anyway just so it’s one less animal they have to follow next time. It’s a tool in the box that works in some areas but not in most.
Caryn: Are you getting any support from the local areas and the government? Kruger National Park- I know that they house a lot of wildlife- are they working with you or helpful?
Damien: Yeah so we won’t go into an area unless we have cooperation from the local governments. All of the areas where we have a footprint we have government personnel stationed with us, operating with us. Working in Mozambique, but along the border of Kruger National Park the guys there have an almost seamless operation. Sharing information, intelligence, data, communications with the South African across the border. That has significantly led to a down turn in rhino poaching in that area. The combined efforts on the Mozambique side of the border has allowed Kruger to re-deploy their resources further West and that has stopped a lot of the insurgents coming in. We saw from 2010-2014 in Kruger National Park and increase in rhino poaching of around 55% each year. 2015 there was .1% increase and last year there was a 19.8% decrease. It’s been a very good combined effort all around in what was probably one of the hardest or most hard hit places on the planet for poachers that are using insurgency-like tactics.
Caryn: I was in Kruger National Park in 1995. I had the good fortune to visit. I was actually doing an art competition, I don’t know if you’re familiar with the Eisteddfod. But it’s a wonderful cultural legacy that started I think by the Dutch and brought it to South Africa. They have competitions of dance groups and choirs and singers and it’s a beautiful mix of diversity from all over the world where you see these angelic German boy choirs and these Zimbabwe dancers all on the same stage. It’s fantastic! My host took a 5-hour drive to where we were staying to Kruger National Park and it was really something to see. That was a long time ago, 1995. What I also did see was Johannesburg and Soweto and this was right after the apartheid was lifted. Just another unbelievable thing, what humanity can create- these shacks for people to live in, in order to support whatever businesses they wanted. These not quite slaves, but slaves. So we do it to humans and we do it to animals. Now lets talk about food because to me, it’s all about food. That’s the name of this program! You made a connection with the animals you were trying to protect with the animals that were on your plate.
Damien: I did. I spent three years over there walking around in the bush protecting one group of animals then coming home and eating another group. I knew all along that it was a lie that I was living and what I was doing and what I was believing were heading off in different tangents. I felt like a hypocrite to be honest. I was going around and asking people to help up and support us, to protect these animals and not responsible in my own actions for trying to stop what is the greatest cause of animal suffering on this planet. That’s the meat industry. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from- there’s not logical argument for eating meat or the suffering that we put those animals through. We pay people to do things to animals that none of us would be willing to do ourselves. Just because we don’t see it up close does not mean we are not responsible.
Caryn: May I ask what you eat when you are in the bush?
Damien: I have a similar diet to elephant and rhinoceros. Lots of trees and lots of grass. If it grows on something I’ll be nibbling on it.
Damien: No it’s not like in New York where you can type “vegan” into Google Maps and all these little red dots come up on your page. We have all the various local markets and we get bits and pieces, everything is cooked from a basic singular raw ingredient. We have a fantastic cook out there in the camp who has been trained up over the years on vegan cooking. His name is Hope, a bit of a local legend out there. As you can see I’m not going hungry.
Caryn: You don’t look like you’re suffering.
Damien: I’m about 250 pounds at the moment.
Caryn: Does everyone in your organization follow this type of diet? How do they feel about it?
Damien: Some do, some don’t. At the end of the day we are an anti-poaching organization, not a food movement. My personal passion is not anti-poaching. My personal passion is motivating other people to give a shit about animals. Having come from my background with zero respect for animals- I consider myself a pretty tough nut to crack in terms of making that 180-degree turn. I think that when I talk to people, the message I try to get across to them- if I can change then I think it’s possible for anybody to be able to show a greater level of compassion for these innocent creatures.
Caryn: You have a young son.
Damien: I do, Leo is his name after Tolstoy.
Caryn: Yes, I love that. He’s living with you where you are?
Damien: Yeah he’s out there in the bush. I could imagine at the moment he would be running around with no shirt on and no shoes. Probably with the rangers who are about to go out on their evening deployment.
Caryn: What kind of message do you have for young children that are growing up today in this global environment?
Damien: People often ask me- they say they feel so helpless on the other side of the world with what’s going on over there. The animals we’re protecting are not Africa’s animals, they’re a global asset and there’s a global responsibility for us all to protect them. But people don’t need to pick up an AK-47 and come to Africa to be a part of the solution. They can make changes in their own lives here, which can effect animals and affect their own lives. The most important thing anybody can do is control what they put on their dinner plate and live a plant-based diet. It’s the easiest way to protect an animal, don’t put it in your mouth. The second way we need help is growing an extended family of supporters around the world- people that understand that the most direct way, the most immediate way to protect these animals out there in the bush is to have a good person with a gun standing between the animal and the armed insurgent like poaching groups that are coming to kill them. We have people, volunteers, of all shapes and sizes and ages come out and spend time with us and the rangers on the front lines helping patrol. They’re just outside of Victoria Falls it’s called the Green Army Program. You can have a look on our website IAPF.org. It’s just about making choices in our own life and not suppressing the truth. At the end of the day we don’t have to answer to anybody else but ourselves. We don’t. With our own actions you only have to look one person in the mirror at the end of the day and that’s you. I couldn’t do it anymore because I was not doing something. I was responsible for killing animals and trying to get people to support us and stopping the killing of animals.
Caryn: Let’s talk about supporting the International Anti-Poaching Foundation, IAPF.org people can go there and donate.
Damien: Correct, yeah there’s a list of ways on the website that people can help or donate or become involved. Sign up for the newsletter, learn about what’s going on. We’re grateful for everything, all shapes and sizes. The donations we get.
Caryn: Just a couple more questions and I’m going to let you go. You’ve had some events around New York. You were at Jivamukti last night. Sharon Gannon and her group- they’re fantastic I hope it went well.
Damien: Yeah it was great.
Caryn: Then you were at NYU with Steve Wise and Kathy Stevens a few weeks ago- I love them both. They’re wonderful people. Kathy Stevens of the Catskill Animal Sanctuary and Steve Wise the persistent attorney trying to make tiny change in the way we perceive the chimpanzee as a person entitled to some rights. Fantastic stuff. Have we fed you well while you’re here?
Damien: I haven’t gone hungry, I’ll be honest.
Caryn: Have you had some highlights?
Damien: I’ve been trying to walk everywhere to walk it off. I think I’ve eaten at Peace Food about four times. Actually a good place up in Harlem, Seasoned Vegan. I think I put on maybe a kilogram or how you guys say two pounds. That would be directly attributed to the best nuggets I’ve ever tasted.
Caryn: Seasoned Vegan in Harlem.
Damien: Eaten at a few of the Blossoms around town.
Caryn: We love their burger.
Damien: Le Botaniste over on the East Side, very good. Candle 79 I’ve also eaten there. I’m trying to get as much of this vegan food into me as possible because when I get back to Africa I’ve got to cook it ourselves so there’s no fancy restaurants.
Caryn: OK well I’m glad we fed you well while you were here. Damien Mander thank you. Just thank you. I’m going to tear up and I’m holding it back because you’re doing wonderful, wonderful…
Damien: Thanks very much and thanks to all the listeners out there. The vegans and the non-vegans. The vegans keep going, keep chipping away, keep being activists. The non-vegans get on board and get on the right side of history. Thank you
Caryn: Right on. Thank you. Let’s take a quick break and we’ll be right back in a minute or two.
Transcribed by Adella Finnan, 5/19/2017