Damien Mander: “We all have that awareness, once we open our eyes”

By on February 7, 2014

306161_10150617333227651_385051918_nLike 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.

You served twelve tours and three years in Iraq as a contractor, after a career as a special operations sniper and clearance diver in the Australian Defense Force. While being in the midst of terrible violence, did you ever imagine the life shift that was to come?

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.

Please talk about the life-changing experience you had in the Zimbabwe bush in 2009. In the talk you call this a “defining moment.” Were you aware of how your life would shift in the moment or shortly thereafter?

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.

You sold everything and poured your life savings into starting a nonprofit, the International Anti-Poaching Foundation (IAPF). You mention in the talk that you have taken some of your military training and used it in conservation. What tools and training you do use?

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.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles or drones are very controversial since they have been used mostly on the Pakistani/Afghani border by the United States to indiscriminately kill, mostly civilians. You have found an ingenious way to take a weapon of violence and use it to protect animals. Can you talk a bit about drones?

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.

Let’s talk about poaching. Many Americans have little knowledge about poaching since the commercial ivory trade has been banned since 1989. CNN reported recently that 87 elephants in Zimbabwe had been poisoned with cyanide for ivory. Though the largest market for ivory is in Asia, particularly China, the United States is widely considered to be the second-largest destination for illegally trafficked wildlife in the world (the European Union third).

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?

How did you go from awareness of the value of elephants, rhinos, and other wildlife to respecting all nonhuman animals? In other words, what was your transformation from conservationist to vegan?

It was denial, followed by query, followed by internal violent opposition, followed by logic, followed by acceptance, followed by enactment.

What about the environmental impact of eating and using animals? How do you see issues like global climate change, pollution, dwindling resources connected to eating animals?

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.

In your TED talk, you bring up speciesism. To quote from the talk, “Suffering is suffering, and murder is murder, and the more helpless the victim the more horrific the crime.” This is an awareness that vegans soon come to once they have a consciousness breakthrough. You also mention that animal activists see things through a different lens. Can you give The Thinking Vegan readers some advice on how to create that lens or awareness with non-vegans?

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.”

You ask a very poignant question at the end of your talk. “Next time you have an opportunity to make a difference for animals, will you be brave enough? Yes or no?” I love that you use the term bravery since vegans and activists are not perceived to be brave in the eyes of the mainstream. How do you define and see bravery used to protect and advocate for animals?

Anybody can exploit the weak. Only the brave protect.

How can The Thinking Vegan readers contribute to IAPF’s work and to stopping poaching in general? Do you take volunteers?

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.



Posted in: Interviews


  1. Carol Morgan Cox
    February 8, 2014

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    Thanks for publishing this insightful interview. I too was overcome with emotion when I first heard Damien Mander’s TEDx talk. He is truly a man of courage and conviction, and I am so grateful for the hard work he does on behalf of animals, people, and the planet.

  2. Laurette Schoeman
    February 11, 2014

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    Anothere real hero for the planet and all its inhabitants! Thank you!

  3. jan Pedley
    February 27, 2014

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    What a guy! truly inspirational he has restored by faith in human kindness. Thanks you so much for what you are doing and getting the message around the world.

  4. jackie wigh
    August 2, 2014

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    Thankyou for all you do for animals. Veganism is the way forward.

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