The eco-warrior

19 Apr 2013

Author: Heather Jacobs

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Using skills and technology honed in combat, ex-military commando Damien Mander is on a new mission to fight back against the poaching of elephants and rhinos in Africa.
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Damien Mander, 33, is the first to admit that the transition from commando to environmentalist is an unusual career move. The founder of the International Anti-Poaching Foundation (IAPF) says, “I spent my life being programmed to do one thing and that was to be in places like Iraq. I thought conservationists were hippies with dreadlocks. It’s a strange transition, but it’s a good one as I love what I am doing.”

At TEDxSydney, Mander passionately describes his work with IAPF, using unmanned drones to track poachers and protect the native wildlife.

Mander spent six years in the military after joining the Royal Australian Navy in 1999 as a clearance diver, going on to become a sniper in the counter-terrorism unit, Tactical Assault Group East (Tag East).

After another three years spent in Iraq working for private security companies, Mander headed to Africa, travelling through Botswana, Namibia and Zambia. It was meant to be a six-month adventure but what he saw convinced him to make the fight against poaching his life’s work.

Mander sold his investment properties in Australia, and used the money to launch IAPF, which is dedicated to training, equipping and educating those on the frontline and in affected communities to help decelerate poaching.

“Animals are defenceless,” he says. “Why can’t an animal go for a drink of water or have something to eat without getting its head blown off for a couple of tusks?”

As well as educating local schoolchildren on conservation, training academies have been set up at Victoria Falls Zimbabwe and in South Africa where they are putting rangers through tactical response programs.

“We looked at all the training courses for rangers and found the education available just wasn’t adequate for these guys to go out and deal with the poaching threat,” he says. “And that’s why you’ve got places where security companies and the army are deployed to do the job of the ranger.”

Mander now spends about nine months a year in Africa making regular trips back to Australia where he works on administration, fundraising and raising awareness. On his most recent trip home in the summer of 2012 he married Maria Udalov, a Siberian who had come to Australia to study hospitality. She has since moved to Africa with Mander and, fortunately, she loves it. 

In Niassa Reserve, Mozambique, a 42,000 square kilometre wilderness and the third largest reserve in Africa, IAPF has been using unmanned drones to track poachers since August 2012.

Mander got the idea from Iraq, where he had drones flying overhead to protect him and envisioned a future where the wildlife would have a watchful eye overhead to protect them.

When Simon Beart, a former Royal Navy helicopter technician, heard about the idea he contacted Mander to say he could build the drones. Mander sent him a polite reply and forgot about it, saying that 95 per cent of people who offer to help don’t follow through. But another email from Beart soon followed, saying he was a week away from getting two drones airborne.

They now have three drones and a team in Australia is working on building a fourth with endurance levels of six to eight hours across a 400 kilometre range. The drones can cover in a few hours what a ground team would take a week to patrol, feeding back live intelligence to operators. They also allow rangers to monitor a much greater area while reducing their own exposure to armed and dangerous poachers.

“We’ve had a fair amount of contact with poachers, the stakes are pretty high especially in South Africa where you have the Rhino Wars raging,” says Mander. “Rhino horns are selling in Asia for up to US$75,000 a kilogram, so they’re worth more than gold and cocaine and people are willing to put their life on the line for that. But in actual fact the most dangerous thing out there is the animals that we are trying to protect.”

He’s had plenty of close calls but the more time he spends in Africa the more he’s learning when to run and when to climb a tree.

Mander says: “When a lion charges you’ve got to stand there but when an elephant charges you run, throwing your clothes away so they can’t pick up your scent. When a buffalo charges you’ve just got to get out of the way really quickly and keep running – up a tree if you can. When a rhino charges you’ve got to stand there until the last minute because they have very poor eyesight but very good hearing.”

He expects to be doing this job for the rest of his life, as poaching is never going to end.

“It’s a bit like asking, ‘What date are we going to wind up the drugs trade or the human trafficking trade or the weapons trade?’, because the illegal trafficking of wildlife is right up there. It’s just something that we have to convince people is worth fighting for, and not only poaching but also looking after the environment. You have to keep convincing people that looking after the environment is going to help us maintain some sort of balance, and that if we lose these wilderness areas and these national parks, then we lose species.”

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