Interview with Damien Mander of the International Anti-Poaching Foundation: “We Shoot Armed Poachers on Sight”

Between multiple deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, Damien Mander spent eight years in the Middle East as a sniper in the Australian Special Forces. Now, from the raw wilderness setting of Zimbabwe, he runs an organization called the International Anti Poaching Foundation (IAPF) with hopes of saving the world’s remaining rhinos from systematic slaughter.

According to National Geographic article, “Rhino Wars,” rhino horn fetches anywhere between $33 and $133 per gram, and is usually sold to Asian markets for its perceived medicinal properties. In the years since 2006, the rhino war of southern Africa has bared witness to the killing of over a thousand rhinos. But poachers have also had their share of losses: 200 were arrested and 22 were gunned down in 2011 alone.

We caught up with Damien recently over Skype to find out what is happening on the frontlines, and how people can get involved.

Can you tell me about IAPF and how it began?
It’s a non-profit organization that I founded with the money I earned after three years in Iraq. We started off small. Now we’ve got two training academies, we’re in the process of taking over land management with Zimbabwe parks, we’re in the process of taking over the fourth largest national park in the country, we’re training rangers, we’ve written the national standards in South Africa for anti-poaching and we’ve developed excellent working relationships with some longstanding and highly respected NGOs.

You were previously a sniper in the Australian Special Forces, how did you transition from that life to one of protecting an endangered species?
I first arrived in Africa at the beginning of 2009. I tried to get involved with anti-poaching – more as an adventure for my own scrapbook really than anything else – in a number of countries: South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia. Of all places I ended up in Zimbabwe. I got over here and saw what was going on, and that was it. I put everything into founding the Anti-Poaching Foundation. I suppose it was one of those moments of clarity where you realize there’s a bit more to life than scratching your own back.

What’s the approach IAPF takes?
I suppose it’s been a natural progression… I came over and it was, “So what’s the problem?” “There’s people poaching.” “So what do we do?” “We stop the poachers.” So our mandate from Day One was to stop the poachers with a fairly hardcore approach. Now, three years later, we’ve realized that a lot of these people are poaching for a reason, whether it’s commercial or subsistence. We’ve shifted our whole philosophy now and we’re taking a lot of steps now to be proactive in working with the communities to help them use their own natural resources in a sustainable way.

Why are rhino horns so sought after?
I suppose it’s no different than drugs or gold or diamonds. It’s a commodity. It has a significant value. In some areas it is in abundance, in southern Africa, and where there is a commodity there’s also an opportunity to exploit it.

It’s used in many different types of traditional Asian medicine. They’ve been using it for thousands of years. I’m not saying it’s right and I’m not saying it’s wrong, but we need to be very careful of pinning our hopes on shifting their culture in any short period of time.

Who are the people or groups that perpetrate this?
A lot of it is driven by international crime syndicates, and a lot of the rhino horn goes to the Far East. You know, the reason the rhino is so important to us is – because of its commercial value – it’s actually the hardest animal to protect. We know that if we’re looking after rhinos, we’re actually looking after everything in the ecosystem.

Do you frequently have encounters with these crime syndicates?
Of course. We at the IAPF deal with the problem on the ground, but we leave the dealing of the upper echelons of these crime syndicates with organizations such as Traffic and Interpol.

In the National Geographic article one of the rangers said, “It is better for the poachers if they meet a lion than if they meet us.” What happens when rangers and poachers clash?
There’s a shoot-on-sight policy in Zimbabwe for armed poachers. It’s a little different to policies in some other countries.

We’ve brought in a pretty thorough training system and it focuses heavily on the correct escalation in the use of force. What this essentially means is that rangers are using the minimum amount of force required to get the job done. That’s not to say that lethal force can’t be used as a last or even instant resort if someone’s life is in jeopardy. At the end of the day, it’s a dangerous job.

What do you think of the idea of privately owned rhino herds to supply Asian markets with Rhino horns? Would that curb the illegal hunting?
There’s a lot of argument for and against legalizing the trade. It has worked with some species in the past and it hasn’t worked with others. It needs a lot of research, but one thing you can’t hide is the fact that you can take that horn off the rhino and it doesn’t die. We’ve got to at least be discussing alternatives because rhino numbers are declining.

Outside of contesting the poachers in the game reserves, are there ways to combat the problem?
We have an excellent program where people from around the world come out and join in the training and the operations with the rangers. They sleep in the same camp as rangers; they go out looking for snares, looking for poachers, monitoring wildlife. It’s actually been a really good motivational boost for the rangers to interact with people from around the world, to know that it’s not just them, there’s actually people out there that care.

You know, anyone can go on holiday and stay in a fancy hotel and do whatever, but a lot of people these days are looking at conservation tourism. You’re going away, seeing something unique, but also being part of positive solutions on the ground with conservation issues.

Is Zimbabwe a safe place for travelers nowadays?
Zimbabwe hasn’t got the best history, but the media often focuses on the negative things about it, and there’s actually a lot of positive things. I’ve been through a lot of Africa and it’s one of the safest countries. It has such beautiful people. They’ve been through economic hardship and they still just got an attitude where they go out and make things happen. The guards are always smiling. The nature is second to none. I’m talking about raw, remote beauty. In a lot of places it really is untamed wilderness and that’s what makes it unique. So Zimbabwe has been through its hardships, but tourism numbers are really picking up now. It really is a fantastic place.

How about for those who can’t make the trek out there?
Definitely keep an eye on our website and sign up for our newsletter. The best way is spreading the word and helping us raise funds for what we see as a very worthy cause. It’s not just about the rhinos. There’s a holistic picture here. We look at things as a social, economic and ecological circle and we try to make sure that all of our projects are encompassing that.

What is on the horizon for IAPF?
The next project we’re undertaking is a resurrection of Chizarira National Park. That’s 2,000 square kilometers of pristine, remote, untamed wilderness. It previously held the highest concentration of black rhinos in the world, but they’ve been locally extinct since 1994. We have a 25-year plan to get the park into the position where it’s ready to receive the black rhino again, which will be a monumental occasion. The first rhino wars started in Chizarira National Park back in the eighties, so we’re turning back the clock.

It was listed as a National Park in 1975. Twelve years later, up until 1997, only 200 people had ever visited the park. It’s very remote, so it’s never going to be a place that’s fully self-sustaining through tourism, but it needs to be preserved for its wilderness value.

Thanks for taking the time Damien, and keep up the good work. A lot of people are rooting for you.
Cheers buddy, appreciate it.

By Bryan Schatz

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