Damien Mander’s Aggressive Preservation
Damien Mander is sitting in the back of an open-top Jeep with a reporter from 60 Minutes Australia discussing the gorier details of what poaching a rhino actually entails. “They’ll just hack the entire front of his face off,” he says. It’s not quite detached, but not quite present either. You get the feeling that after spending years in the bush seeing every brutal iteration of this illicit harvest, Mander just wants it to stop, and he doesn’t really give a fuck whether you care or not.
Poached animal parts net upwards of $20 billion every year; a black rhino’s front horn will get about $100,000 by itself. Most of the ill-gotten appendages end up in Asian markets, where elephant ivory is carved into figurines and rhino horns are ground into powder to fuel traditional medicines. The demand in places like China is higher than it has ever been, where a burgeoning upper- middle class finds themselves with enough extra cash to buy horns, tusks, and claws as well as kidneys, livers, and testicles. Even so, Mander thinks the demonization of the Asian marketplace is a convenient way to skirt the issues defining the trade as a whole. “I think it’s a little disingenuous that [the West] spent a hundred years killing as many of these animals as we could find,” he told Time earlier this year, “and now we are putting them behind fences and saying to everyone that we have to protect them.” He doesn’t see any good in girdling blame in state borders, especially because environmental destruction on a massive scale has been around since humans got good at it. His timeline blankets most of modern history in hospital corners. No wrinkles or peaks or dips, just a perfectly even sheet of blame.
That balanced distribution of fault is essential to Mander’s outlook on the environment—an ethos equal parts fatalism and realpolitik. “It’s the unfortunate world we’ve created for ourselves to manage,” he says, “I’m under no illusions that the ultimate solution would be the communities surrounding these protected areas to work in tandem, and that there would be no need for guys to be carrying guns to protect these animals. That’s just not the reality.”
The International Anti-Poaching Foundation—the nonprofit that Mander founded in 2009—is dedicated towards disrupting that reality. I talked to the 34-year-old Australian while he was staying in a South African hotel during a recent lecture tour. Even through the flecked screen of a Skype call he looks like he carries the weight of the preservation world on his shoulders. Mander cracks open a beer and leans back in a creaky desk chair. It’s been a long day, but one just like every other.
The first thing most people ask Damien Mander about are his methods. They’re somewhat unsound: paramilitary, tactical, ad hoc—not the first things that come to mind when you talk about conservation unless you’re a big fan of Ted Nugent.
It’s a question Mander is obviously prepared for; before I can finish asking him about the footage of him training a dozen young cadets in hand-to-hand combat, he brings up the most well-known expanse under IAPF’s protection: Limpopo National Park in Mozambique, one of the most critical pieces of land for rhino conservation in the world. “Tonight there are 11 armed poaching units operating there,” he says. “Some of them will have crossed an international border, and some of those units will use military tactics and skills and equipment and will use those skills to kill a rhino or deal with rangers in order to get back across the border.”
The bellicose imagery isn’t symbolic for Mander. He doesn’t see poachers as profiteers; they’re enemy combatants in a one-sided war. Mander isn’t just a conservationist; he’s the thin line between survival and genocide for animals like the black rhino. Humans aren’t just encroaching on the African bush; they’re systematically destroying it.
Weaponizing anti-poaching efforts makes IAPF’s mission slightly harder when it comes to recruiting partners and donors who have seen soft power dominate the conversation for so long. But winning people over isn’t high on the 34-year-old’s list of priorities. “Hearts and minds: It rolls off the tongue so easily, but when has it really worked, shifting an entire population to your side?” he asked the Christian Science Monitor earlier this year, “While we’re trying to win people over, tens of thousands of animals are being killed every year. We need to do something now, on the ground, to stop the hemorrhaging. Otherwise there won’t be anything left by the time we’ve won all the hearts and minds.” But he’s also aware that the coterie of boots-on-the-ground conservation efforts are all competing for space in a shrinking pool. “There’s a limited amount of funds, and that’s why you see us struggling…The conservation industry can be quite fragmented. [Everyone] is desperate for every last penny because there isn’t much money to go around.”
One group Mander doesn’t engage with is politicians, and given that he tends to operate in countries that don’t have the greatest track record of democratic integrity, it’s been a boon to his operation’s independence and success. “Our job is on the ground. We don’t go messing where we don’t belong. Politicians don’t hassle me, so I don’t hassle them.”
That Mander might give up some political leverage by refusing to tap into the channels that other conservation nonprofits cultivate doesn’t concern him. He’s result-oriented, to say the least. The only thing that matters is whether or not poaching has been reduced in preserves where the IAPF operates and, by that measure, Mander has seen staggering success by creating what some have called a paramilitary operation in southern Africa. He doesn’t just train rangers—he trains soldiers.
Mander’s military pedigree is appropriately sterling: he enlisted in the Australian Navy and transferred into their special forces unit at age 19. Six years later he was a dead-eye sniper and a prolific diver notching tours in Iraq by the handful. He eventually left the service to become a contractor, training Iraqi police officers and making some good money in the process. Mander told the Christian Science Monitor that the training made him feel like he “maybe had a positive contribution in an otherwise bad situation,” but he left the Middle East in 2008 feeling disillusioned and war-weary. Mander made a beeline for the bars of South America and, eventually, back home to Australia. It was there that a chance conversation in a local bar inspired him to pack up and head to Johannesburg. He started calling local anti-poaching outfits asking if they might have some use for a guy who knows his way around a rifle.
And that’s how Damien Mander decided he wanted to save the animals from us.
It’s easy to frame Mander’s frustration as disillusionment harvested from his experience as a military contractor, but the longer we spoke, the more it became clear that Mander was just exhausted. He’s currently trying to secure funding for the IAPF in a cash-strapped landscape while taking on a new 1.1 million-acre reserve, the largest expanse under his nonprofit’s protective umbrella. It’s a burden that Mander is learning to balance properly. It’s personal responsibility and institutional vigilance at once, a hybrid vision of what hewantstoaccomplishandhowhewants to do it. In that way, he’s more Jeff Bezos than Stewart Brand, a pragmatic CEO that happens to know his way around the African wilderness and teaches young rangers the proper escalation of force during an encounter with poachers.
“We had some poachers in Livingstone yesterday,” Mander says. Livingstone Private Game Reserve is a 6000-hectare tract in Zimbabwe a few miles from Victoria Falls that sports a few posh game lodges and some stunning safari tours. It’s also home to the IAPF’s ranger training facility. “I think they’d been [in Livingstone] about two minutes.
We were doing a lesson, and the edge of the reserve where these guys broke in is about 500 meters from our classroom. Sixteen of our armed guys surrounded them right after they crossed the fence.” Despite the seriousness of his task, there’s some pleasure to be had for Mander in seeing poachers rounded up by men he had trained personally. “The bush telegraph travels quickly. I doubt we’ll have anymore problems with those guys or anyone they know.”
Mander wants his obsolescence desperately. He’s aware his role is a stopgap in the anti-poaching conversation. “What we’re doing is a Band-aid solution,” he says, “My dream is that one day I’m going to be out of work.” That isn’t just moral grandstanding on Mander’s part. You can hear the catharsis when he talks about helping protect the wild, especially when it comes to the animals he sees on a daily basis. He considers them as vulnerable as children and assigns them a capacity for distress on par with humans: “Lots of people look at animals and think they can’t experience pain or suffering, but that lack of understanding is usually brought about by the requirements of our personal convenience.”
When we talk about the creatures that Mander is trying to save, he switches from tactician to philosopher, a shift that parallels the transformation from his omnivorous special forces sniper to environmental steward and devout vegan. “As soon as I got involved with protecting wildlife I knew it wasn’t just about wildlife. There was more to the picture because I saw the suffering in the animals we’re looking after in Africa and knew that there’s no daylight between that suffering and the animals I’ve been eating for nearly thirty years.”Thatadoptionofplant-basedethics makes Mander something of an anomaly in conservation: all the conservationists I spoke to care deeply about the animals they work with—tracking, protecting, researching—but many don’t have any qualms about throwing a hunk of steak on the grill.
Like many in this new wave of self- conscious vegetarianism and veganism, Mander considers that sort of cognitive dissonance original sin. “If people had to kill what they eat or what they wear you’d see a lot more people dressed in cotton and munching on tofu,” Mander says.
His refrain isn’t uncommon, but Mander seems to treat it as a litmus test for any conservationist. “Becoming vegan for me is a baseline of ethical existence that I can now go on with for the rest of my life. The easiest way we can protect animals is just to not put them in your mouth. It’s as simple as that.”
Mander is, for lack of a gentler term, an aberration. He shares bloodlines with animal rights activists who busted Rhesus monkeys out of labs in the 1960s and crusade against the gruesome treatment of commodified animals today, but is defined by his attachment to the stringent tactical organization endemic to the military. His most lasting legacy may be as a bridge between the soft power preferred by organized outfits like the World Wildlife Fund and Conservation International and the ad hoc offensives conducted by Greenpeace and PETA. Mander wants that link to be clear, but gets frustrated when folks ignore the problems on the ground in favor of policy directives: “The world that wants to engage in tourism here—whether they’re hunting or running a game lodge or even a student who wants to come over and do a PhD—all these people depend on one group of people, rangers.”
Mander’s desire to protect all those interests— interests that are always subordinate to protecting wildlife for him—is a weight almost impossible to balance when so much of Mander’s goal is seen through the lens of war. It’s ironic then that so much of what keeps Mander going is a desire to simply do good in the world. “The thing about doing something good is that once you start it’s easy to keep doing it.”
But it’s an exhausting equilibrium to maintain, and you can hear his voice dip into a deep pool of grief when he talks about the horrors of poaching. “Seeing an animal that had ripped his own pelvis apart after trying to escape from a poacher’s snare—you never forget those things.” Sorrowful examples can make an even keel seem almost quaint, but Mander keeps his timelines long and his perspective wide. He moves past scenes of horror, knowing they’ll be repeated ad nauseum unless he keeps going. “We only get one shot at this. The world will chew us up and spit us out. It’ll just be us that’s gone.” It’s still unclear whether that’s a warning or a wish.
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