Like so many others, I discovered Damien Mander and his anti-poaching work from watching his TEDx talk a few months back. I was riveted to my chair as I watched him tell the story of his work in such an impassioned way, and I was thrilled when his story made the larger connection between poaching and veganism.
I dug a little deeper into his work with the International Anti-Poaching Foundation and their work to combat illegal wildlife trafficking and poaching on the ground. In addition to this hands-on work of protecting many endangered species, they also work through education and awareness campaigns.
Once an Australian Royal Navy Clearance Driver and Special Operations military sniper, Damien has now dedicated his life to environmentalism and animal protection. He gave up a lucrative career and used his life savings and investments to start the International Anti-Poaching Foundation. It was an honor to speak to Damien about his important work.
I always knew I would find what it is I was supposed to be doing whilst traveling and working around the world. There is no better classroom.
I was aware that I should continue my work, but I guess I had been unable to fully commit my life to something such as conservation – something greater than myself. Seeing an elephant with a missing face changed that. We all have our breaking points, and it’s not until we reach the bottom of our soul, that sometimes, we know which direction to take.
If, in any other theatre, armed units crossed international borders and took out high profile targets it would be a front-page incident or act of terrorism. Yet this environmental terrorism happens daily in the poaching of high-target species, and we sit here struggling to justify to an international community that rangers need the same access to training and equipment as our soldiers do. I don’t like the fact that this is part of conservation, but this is the world we have created for ourselves to manage. It is deemed acceptable for militaries to protect our national interests and police to protect our local interests, but when it comes to protecting natural interests we have to walk on eggshells.
Rangers must be given the capacity to hold on to what we have left, while we figure out as a global community what the long-term answers are – or nature figures this out for us. This means a para-military approach. I know this is not the solution, but it is part of a solution. This must fit hand-in-hand with community upliftment, policy change, tougher borders control and a shift in global awareness and priorities – but first, the hemorrhaging must be stopped, before we are bled out as a generation, as a species, as a planet. The skills and principles used on the battlefield are directly relevant to protecting animals. I wish it was different.
We have joined the race to implement the technology into conservation that has revolutionized the way things are done on the regular battlefield. We are entering the Drone Age. In the past decade, a trillion-dollar mobile phone industry has made technology previously reserved for the military now accessible for civilian application. Riding on the coattails of this revolution, we do our best to gain momentum for the use of advanced technology in conservation. “Pilotless aircraft have changed fighting much as night-vision technology did in the 1980s and 1990s,” stated Col. John Burke, project manager for the Army’s UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) program back in 2006. “It’s very seldom that you see a revolution in warfare like this.”
The drones we are using are small in comparison to a Predator UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) that routinely patrols the skies anywhere the United States has an interest in. But it has a purpose. It’s a great example of what technology should be: smaller, lighter, easier to function, sophisticated, and cheaper. Gyroscopes, which measure rates of rotation; magnetometers, which act as digital compasses; pressure sensors, which measure atmospheric pressure to calculate altitude; accelerometers, to measure the force of gravity – all the capabilities of these technologies are now embedded in tiny chips that you can buy at an electrical store. Global Positioning Systems which cost tens of thousands of dollars in the 90s are now a thumbnail-size device and cost as little as $10.
Drones allow us to have eyes on the target, to see things out in front of us, and in places we don’t have the resources to get to. Previously we would walk around, waiting to bump into something. Now, we peek over the horizon. The drone can provide day or night aerial intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance. Real-time intelligence is everything in an operational environment. Having this far exceeds locating a two-day old footprint, or worse still, the mutilated carcass of an animal. Having the resources to follow up on intelligence is critical too. If we can cover with a drone in a few hours what a ground team covers in a week, why not extract some of the rangers from the field? They can then be trained as a specialist reaction unit and on constant standby to respond to real-time intelligence. Doubling your manpower in Africa doesn’t always solve the problem – it often increases it. The drone is a tool that can reduce deployed manpower in the field.
Wildlife crime is sweeping the planet. The illegal trafficking of wildlife is now one of the world’s largest criminal industries, with repeated links to terrorism networks.
High-target species such as elephant, rhino, tiger, and gorilla are being hunted to extinction. These animals are the most difficult to protect, as poachers go to the most extreme lengths to kill them. If we can protect these animals, then entire ecosystems are safe.
Anti-poaching rangers form the first and last line of defense for nature. Without the right training, equipment and management, they cannot defend the world’s natural heritage for future generations.
We must support these brave warriors – the true heroes in today’s society, tasked with protecting the heart and lungs of Planet Earth. I’m not asking for you to consider whether or not rangers should be trained, equipped and supported to the genuine levels required, I’m asking you if you will accept the outcome if we do not follow this path?
It was denial, followed by query, followed by internal violent opposition, followed by logic, followed by acceptance, followed by enactment.
The wonders of human denial will never cease to amaze me. I will never stop speaking of this, and the deserved equality of all animals. Whilst my voice can reach all corners, my skills are unfortunately best suited on the front lines of the world wildlife war in Africa.
As a planet, we are eating ourselves to death. Perhaps one day, aliens will land on Earth, review what is left, and wonder in amazement how we were so short sighted. I cannot think of another species whose downfall was triggered by gluttony combined with denial in the service of convenience.
How can we wake up all of humanity to the short-sightedness of meat eating? It would drastically reduce the bush-meat trade, deforestation, ocean pollution, hunger and so on. My son Leo was named after Tolstoy, who rightfully visioned, “As long as there are slaughterhouses, there will be battlefields.”
Change cannot come from the top levels of society. It must come from the ground. We must somehow convince the youth of the benefits of a vegan lifestyle. This should be the baseline of an ethical existence.
We all have that awareness, once we open our eyes. We all know and understand the truth. We just need to choose to accept it. Those that eat meat are directly responsible for the suffering of animals and a primary part in the environmental degradation of this planet.
I always wonder when I hear people justify their conveniences, “Oh, the animal was ethically killed. It lived a good life, and didn’t see the bullet coming. That’s like someone saying, “Hey, I ethically raped your wife. I drugged her first, so she didn’t really know what was going on.”
Anybody can exploit the weak. Only the brave protect.
As blunt as I can be: finance. We are fighting a war. A World Wildlife War. Without the right backing, we cannot maintain the battle against the never-ending onslaught of wildlife crime.