The Evolution of an Environmentalist: From Counterinsurgency to Anti-Poaching: Damien Mander

"If we don't protect it, there's going to be nothing left. This is our backyard. There's a responsibility upon all of us to look after nature in whatever way we can." - Damien Mander

Discover the remarkable journey of a former special operations sniper who transitioned from a life of combat to becoming the founder and CEO of the International Antipoaching Foundation. From the intensity of military operations in Iraq to the African wilderness, Damien Mander's transformation will leave you inspired. But that's not the end of the story. Join us as we learn more about his efforts in leading a team of female rangers, the Ashakinga, in protecting Zimbabwe's wildlife from the devastating impact of poaching. His story tale of unwavering commitment to wildlife conservation and the inspiring people he has met on his journey.

About Damien:

Damien Mander, a former Australian Navy clearance diver and special operations military sniper, is widely recognized as the founder and CEO of the International Anti-Poaching Foundation (IAPF). After a pivotal encounter in Africa, he committed his life savings to establish the IAPF, focusing on training and supporting rangers across African wilderness. Notably, Mander's innovative approach led to the formation of the first all-female Ashakinga rangers in Zimbabwe, marking a significant advancement in wildlife conservation. With a steadfast goal to employ 1000 women by 2025, Damien Mander's strategic leadership has positioned the IAPF as a prominent force in wildlife conservation and anti-poaching initiatives, contributing significantly to the protection of endangered species and their habitats. With insights from influential figures like Dr. Jane Goodall and Dr. Ian Player, the conversation underscores the importance of protecting nature for future generations. Damien's journey and dedication serve as a compelling reminder of the vital role each individual plays in preserving wildlife.


Learn More:

• Discover effective wildlife conservation efforts to make a positive impact. 

• Learn about the International Antipoaching Foundation's critical role in protecting endangered species. 

• Uncover strategies for safeguarding high target species from poaching threats. 

• Understand the importance of addressing root causes of poaching for long-term conservation success. 

• Find inspiration from role models in conservation and their impactful contributions. 

• Understand the importance of addressing root causes of poaching in conservation efforts. 

• Learn about Akashinga — originally named the International Anti-Poaching Foundation (IAPF) — was founded in 2009 by Australian-born and Zimbabwean-based environmentalist Damien Mander.


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Hello and welcome to what's your why podcast. I am your host, Emy Digrappa. We bring you stories that engage, inspire and educate about our shared human experience, brought to you by Wyoming humanities. I have a great story for you today. When I first met my guest, Damien Mander, he was giving a TEDx talk in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.         


Damien is a former Australian Navy clearance diver. He's also a special operations military sniper. Whoa. He is an active environmentalist and founder and CEO of the International Antipoching foundation. In 2009, while traveling through Africa, he was inspired by the work of rangers and the plight of wildlife.         


With passion and commitment, he liquidated his life savings and formed the International Antipoching Foundation, IAPF. Over the past decade, the IAPF has trained and supported rangers, which now protect over 9 million acres of african wilderness. But that's not the end of the story. In 2017, Mander recruited the initial team of 16 female rangers in the lower Zembezi valley of Zimbabwe. These women became the first Ashakinga rangers.         


Ashakinga means the brave ones in the Shona language, or also known as nature. Protected by women. They embarked on a mission to safeguard Zimbabwe's wildlife from the devastating impact of poaching. This marks the beginning of the organization working directly with local communities to tackle the challenges of illegal wildlife trade and environmental degradation. So what's exciting is that this program that has already grown to over 170 employees, becoming the only group of nature reserves in the world to be protected by women.         


That's so cool. The goal is to employ 1000 women by 2025. And I just want to congratulate Damien and his team. I really hope you enjoy this conversation. Thanks for listening.         


Welcome, Damien. Yeah, g'day. How you doing? You've done a lot in your life, and it's exciting to talk to you because I want to hear your story about how you moved from being a special operations sniper to becoming a founder and CEO of the International Antipotent foundation. Okay.         


Yeah, no problem. So I can do that. So, basically, I served from 1999 to 2005 with the Royal Australian Navy and Army and the Special Operations Department. 2005, I left the military to go and work in Iraq as a private contractor and basically to try and make as much money as I could as an opportunity there to triple my salary and pay no tax. I took that opportunity.         


So I went to Iraq for what was the first of twelve tours working alongside us forces, initially doing close protection, but then moved into training the Iraqi Special police battalion sized groups to replace the disbanded Iraqi army and iraqi police force. So after about a year I moved into a project management role at the Iraq Special Police Training Academy in northern Baghdad. And we would recruit from the local population, often people with low literacy, train them up and send them back out into the eye of the storm. So I learned a lot of lessons there. We didn't do everything right.         


We learned as we went along. There was no textbook on how to stand up a new army and a new police force in the face of an insurgency. So a lot of it was testing and adjusting as we went along. But I was learning skills that would later carry me through what would become my new career and not only the rest of my life, but define who I am. So after twelve tours, I went to southern Africa, a little bit lost, disillusioned with what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.         


And it's very hard to go from not only from a special operations community where, you know, the person standing next to you is watching your life more than you're watching it yourself, but then to go to Iraq and you're basically living on a knife's edge for so many years and then it all stops, can be very hard to fill that void. And I was fortunate. I started traveling around with an open mind, spending time with rangers in these wilderness areas, but at the same time learning about the struggles that they face on a daily basis, seeing what these guys do, not only seeing what they do, but what they protect and what they stand for. And that, for me, was something that resonated with me more than anything else had previously done in my life. Iraq, you're going up against guys that also have weapons, and it's a two way shooting range, that one.         


But when you see an animal, animals don't want much. They don't want a job, they don't want a car, they don't want a bigger house, they don't have egos, they just want one thing. They want to live. And we as a species are continually trying to take that away from them. And I saw an opportunity in southern Africa to use my skills and the money that I'd saved by being in Iraq and with the military to do something constructive with the rest of my life.         


So I set up the International Anti Poaching foundation. We're now six years down the track. We've got the likes of Dr. Mander Goodall, who sits on our advisory committee. We have a presence in six countries, we have six major campaigns, and we've supported over 40 other frontline conservation initiatives with investments up to the value of 50,000 U.         


S. Dollars. Our mission is wildlife conservation through direct action. We're very narrow and focused in what we do. We are the guys at ground zero, at the coalface.         


I go to work every day knowing that what we do is not the answer. This age old cliche of winning hearts and minds making the communities not need to poach anymore is the solution. But we struggle to see models that work, and definitely not workable on the scales that are required to swing this huge issue around that we have. So in the meantime, I'm the guy that stops the hemorrhaging. We're the guys that buy the time.         


We're the rangers out there on the front line, standing between rhinos and elephants and between poachers. And when something is being exploited, the most direct way to protect that is to stop the person that's doing it, and that's what we do. How did you first come across poachers or learn about what they were doing and really dive into that work? I'd heard about anti poaching some years earlier, more of a romanticized adventure setting, really, discussed by some mates in a bar in Australia. And I won't lie, though reasonable enough for a military guy.         


And I sold everything and set this up. There's a group of people in this world that go out every day for up to 14 days at a time, risking their life. It doesn't matter if you run an environmental ngo, whether you like photographing nature, whether you like going on safari in Africa, whether you're a hunter, whether you just like breathing the fresh air or drinking the fresh water that comes from nature. It all comes back to one group of people. And it's the group of people that go out there risking their life.         


Not so much from the poachers they're trying to stop from the animals they're trying to protect. And these group of people are rangers. And for me, going forward in life, the best thing I could have done with the money I had and the skills I have was to support these people so they can go out and protect the heart and lungs of the planet. As you've been doing this work, what have you learned about people who are poaching and why they poach? And like you said, you're stopping the hemorrhaging.         


But how can you go deeper and in a grassroots way, help people understand the damage they're doing to the world? And are they doing it to survive and to eat and take care of their families? I don't operate. We don't go in on the ground and operate or one, unless we have government approval, work with the local stakeholders. But two, unless there are community initiatives going on alongside the reserves that we've been asked to support.         


There's two different types of poaching. Subsistence poaching. That's poaching for the plate. And then there's commercial poaching, which is like robbing banks or selling drugs to feed your family. We are the guys that stop the commercial poaching.         


We build strategy. What we do is we get stakeholders together. We build strategy to protect the hardest species, to protect what we call high target species. This is animals like a rhino or an elephant, whatever. The hardest animal in an area to protect is, that's where we set our sights.         


And what you find is that when you protect the hardest animal to protect, everything else in that ecosystem is being looked after. And when you weigh that against some of the bigger issues we have in the world today, global warming, deforestation, human population growth. The most direct thing we can do right now is to hold on to what we have left, and that's what we do. How did your work in the military prepare you for what you're doing right now? Yeah.         


I won't lie, it's very unfortunate that guys like me are required to protect animals like a rhino and elephant. I wish it didn't have to be that way. This is the world we've created for ourselves to manage. Rangers are being shot at and killed, and the animals they try to protect are being shot at and killed. You got armed groups of civilians which go out protected by the local population, crossing familiar territory, conducting raids and ambushes against larger and less mobile but regular forces, such as special operations, police, military.         


They then come back through familiar territory still protected by the local population. That's a definition of guerrilla warfare. And you've got men and women who signed up to look after nature, but are now being asked to do the job of a soldier. And, look, I don't know what the answer is. There's people who are a lot smarter than me trying to figure out the long term solutions.         


There's whole government departments working on it. I know that what we do buys time. We hold on to what is left. That's interesting. Tell me, who, in doing this work and in learning from others who have gone before you in conservation, who has inspired your life work?         


Now, two people come to mind, and they both sit on our international advisory committee, just bearing in mind we're six entities now registered around the world. Dr. Jane Goodall. Of course, I actually probably don't even need to say much more than that she's an inspiration. And what Jane represents is that conservation isn't just something we pick and choose.         


If we're going to be a part of conservation is a lifetime commitment. It shouldn't be an option. It's like raising a child. If you have that child, you need to look after it. There's a responsibility there within that, and there's a responsibility upon all of us to look after nature in whatever way we can.         


This is our backyard. If we don't protect it, there's going to be nothing left. Dr. Ian Player, the man that, with his team, pulled together the last remaining rhino in South Africa in the late 1950s, early 1960s, and sent breeding herds out around the world when there are as little as 500 rhinos left. Southern white rhino.         


And today we have 20,000 of these animals left. Ian passed away late last year, but the fact that we have rhino left today to fight for is because of that man and what he did and what he stood for for an entire lifetime. Both of them a great inspiration to me. Very humble people. Knowing Ian up until his last days, and having known Jane for quite a long time now, these people, they're not fancy.         


They don't have fancy cars or anything, they don't wear fancy clothes, they don't need that. They know that what they do makes them richer than anything else on the planet. Well, that's wonderful. So I have one last question. Do you feel like when you left the military, that you suffered from any kind of trauma or PTSD?         


Look, I definitely know it's something that's front and center, particularly with the American public and the rates of suicide we have here. For me, look, you don't come out of places like Iraq after twelve tours completely unscathed. I've still got ten fingers and ten toes, but, of course, you still get anxiety and slamming doors and things like that. You're sort of clawing onto the ceiling. But I think one thing that has really helped me is getting back to nature and realizing there's something bigger than oneself in the world and it's looking after nature.         


This presence that's all around us and the animals that inhabit it and the trees and being able to look after that for me, has given me great purpose in life. And so whatever has happened in the past, whatever scars there are, they are managed by the mission that we're on now going forward. We have a program in Zimbabwe called our Green army program. So we have people from around the world that come out and work with rangers on the front line in an unarmed capacity but we also have a lot of veterans that have come out and spend time with us, not only us guys, but Australian, Canadian guys from Europe. And they just come out and see that there is a life after war.         


It's a new war that we're fighting. It's an endless war. But protecting nature, fighting for something that, in my opinion, is the most important thing on the planet to fight for. That's excellent. Thank you so much.         


And thank you for being here. Damien, thank you very much. Cheers.         


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