Image by Tom Varley
Interviewed by Veronica Farmer for www.madebeautifulbyscars.com
Eight years ago I founded an organization called the International Anti Poaching Foundation. The idea that began it all was to end wild life crime on the frontlines in Africa. At one time I was living a drug fuelled war-scarred life, I have been a hunter, a military man and a mercenary in 12 tours of Iraq and now I devote my life to protecting the hardest animals to protect and doing all I can to preserve a dying treasure, our rhinos and elephants of Africa.
I know that what we are doing in our work with armed men and women on the front lines willing to defend these animals is not the ultimate solution. There are some incredible people working on research, demand reduction in Asia, and helping communities in Africa so that they don’t need to poach. But in the meantime, we have to make sure that when education has caught up and people realize that it is wrong to kill these animals, that we still have animals left to care about.
20 years ago, I had zero respect for animals, environmentalists, conservationists what they were doing or what they fought for. I was a kid trying to find himself in the world and my currency was being a big tough macho guy. I had ‘Seek and Destroy’ tattooed in huge letters across my chest. I don’t know where this attitude came from; maybe I was scared of something. I had a great upbringing, good parents who cared about me and yet I was the kid always in trouble for fighting. I had a lot of energy and it needed to be used for something. I did not know how to use this life force I had to improve my life or the lives of others, I only knew how to use it in a destructive way.
There were a couple of people who tried to tell me that I was destined for taking that big energy and using it more wisely. When I was 16 years old, my art teacher kept me back after school one day. She said “Damien I will always be an art teacher and I am happy with that. It’s a good life for me. You though, will always be the biggest waste of talent I have ever seen unless you do something about it.” I looked at her and said “Oh yeah, whatever…” But, I went outside and felt the confusion and the frustration rising. I sat on that step and cried. At that time though I did not have any options in front of me to take.
As a parent of a four year old son now, I realize that it can take just one person or one situation in your life to head you off the rails and vice versa- one good person can bring you back out or set you on a more determined path. I had started hanging out with some kids that were into drugs in my mid teens. I would go around to my friend’s house every morning to hang out before school and one morning I arrived there to see all my friends hand-cuffed on the ground, face down. A senior policeman came over to me and said, “Mr. Mander would you like to go with your friends or would you like to continue on next week as scheduled and join the navy.” I joined the navy.
There is always somewhere you can walk to, to get past the worst times and experiences in your life and make use of opportunities in front of you to become so much more.
I was never allowed to touch guns growing up so as soon as I turned 18 years old I went and got myself a gun. I was a great shot. Not long after that I took my then 14-year old brother hunting. It was a trip I felt would make him more of a man. I shot a rabbit through the spine. It had been a long shot; some 70 metres and the rabbit had been on the move, going about its business of just being a rabbit. I had all the markings of a future sniper already. The rabbit didn’t die, rather it lay there struggling, trying to drag itself away. I walked up, put the loaded rifle in my brother’s hands and tried to make him shoot the rabbit in the head. He refused and dropped the rifle sobbing.
I was disgusted with his weakness and had to finish the rabbit off myself while he looked away. I teased him for some years about that- for not being ‘man enough’ to kill the rabbit. Then one day, the penny finally dropped. I realized that he was the strong one and I was the truly weak one. He was the real man. He had chosen not to hurt something that didn’t deserve it. It took me many years though to work that out.
At 20 years old I was a Royal Australian Navy Clearance Diver, then over the course of a several years I entered some of the most arduous military courses on the planet, getting through selection phases where others would drop off left right and centre.
In 2011, the Australian Defense Force formed a tactical assault group, a small niche group of special operations soldiers and sailors and I joined them and became a sniper. I was deployed to Iraq and completed 12 tours. I saw and lived through many things that shaped me and I still reflect on events as I move through life’s experiences and gain new insights of what I witnessed. Too many good people in the military and in my own unit found the events we saw too much and have taken their own lives.
I stuck a straw in my nose instead of a gun in my mouth to cope. I spent 11 months in drug dens in South America, drunk and stoned. I dropped down to 89 kilos. I usually sit around 116. I had to go to the very bottom of the barrel and then claw, spit and punch my way back out, back up into life. I jumped on a plane, a one-way ticket to Africa. I had joined the military for the adventure, I didn’t go to Iraq to help the Iraqi people, I went there for the money and this trip to Africa wasn’t for a cause, I went there looking for a fight. I wanted to run around in the bush and hunt poachers for 6 months, that was going to be the next cool adventure for me, but something happened to me out there.
Seeing what was going on with the animals over there progressively got under my skin and confused me. I was not the hunter from a decade before. I had been working as a mercenary, earning massive bucks so I could piss it up against a wall and put it up my nose and landing in Africa I met rangers working for a couple of hundred dollars a month, leaving their families behind for most of the year.
These rangers had strong and real bonds with these great animals, understanding of all their characteristics that made them unique beings and treated them like their own children. That was inspiring for me and made me look at who I was, the guy trying to have an adventure. I felt ashamed. These people were true guardians, dedicating their lives to protecting these animals with nothing coming back financially. They had as few possessions than anyone I had seen in the 70 countries I had been through and yet they had the richest souls.
An incident that transformed me was coming across a buffalo with her back legs caught in a wire snare, hearing bone crunching on bone as she had ripped her pelvis in half trying to get free. The rangers told me she had been there for 3 days. We euthanized her and she gave birth to a stillborn calf. Seeing that calf became a symbol of my rebirth from the tough guy to someone who could leave a legacy and truly help these great beings.
I had experienced what was happening to vulnerable innocent people in Iraq, people who had experienced their country ripped apart and destroyed and then I saw the animals in front of me were living the same fate. I knew that I couldn’t do anything about Iraq, but I could do something about what was happening here in Africa.
I’m not a natural animal hugger, I’m not the guy who wants to pat every elephant or rhino that lumbers past me, I just want them to be able to live out their lives without the risk of a heavy caliber bullet ripping through flesh and bone. What drives me is injustice of what is happening to these great animals. I want them to be able to live in peace and remain as a species on our planet.
That someone can kill an animal that weighs as much as a truck for an object they can carry in one hand is wrong.
As my passion took over though I forgot the people in my life. Even my wife and son were pushed to one side. Now I have found a healthy balance of work and family and don’t do the 18 hours a day 7-days a week work like I used to. It’s hard when you are in that place. You can’t tell someone who is passionate about a cause to slow down, they have to work themselves into the right groove or work themselves out of what they are doing. I have been given some great lessons from mentors who have been on similar paths in the military or corporate world, people who have achieved great things and given me great advice, but some things you have to work out for yourself and this was one of them – finding that natural balance meant I could keep doing the work in a sustainable way.
The IAPF is at a good place now and needs less of me hands-on. We have some wonderful people involved including Dr Jane Goodall, Dame of the British Empire and United Nations Messenger of Peace. She is a world-renowned humanitarian and environmentalist and advocate for animals.
My real passion now is moving from ground level anti poaching to more educating and convincing other humans to care, to be guardians of the important creatures on this planet. If someone who was as big a knucklehead as I was to animals can change, then anyone can. There is no reason why we shouldn’t be able to reach anyone who is out there and help him or her see the world through a different lens for these animals.
After this interview, I am off to lecture in 50 venues in multiple cities around Australia, Scandinavia, Western Europe, the UK and the USA to help people see how we must protect these animals. This is my life now. By protecting elephants and rhino everything in that eco system is also looked after, the birds, the bees, the flowers and the trees are all being protected. The key to survival on this planet is holding onto as much biodiversity as possible. We are the ones that these animals are waiting for. Blaming the generations who came before or leaving it to our children to fix won’t keep our animals safe or alive. It’s up to us right now. Whether you are 70 or 7 years old we can all do something.
Men, the self proclaimed “strong ones” should be protectors of the vulnerable in this world, and animals are without voice, innocent and vulnerable. Please don’t be the person I was. Please have compassion for animals.
Our vulnerabilities are what make us truly human. My past, all those gathered up life scars, helped shape what I am and how I live today. Opening my eyes to the wonder of animals and their desperate need for protection in all aspects of life, from the front lines of Africa, to our dinner tables at home has transformed my life.
Interviewed by Veronica Farmer for www.madebeautifulbyscars.com
ABOUT DAMIEN MANDER
Damien Manda is the founder of the International Anti Poaching Foundation – an organization taking on the poachers of rhinos and elephants in the national parks of South Africa.
Since 2009, Damien has been using his military skills to fight for animals. He has focused on creating a band of trained and armed conservationists who can take on poachers engaged by criminal networks to protect wildlife. Damien also lectures throughout the world educating people about the importance of protecting our great animals from harm. At the turn of the century there were one million rhino and now with only 25,000 left they are being pushed to extinction. Damien is passionate about protecting these great species and being a voice of advocacy for all animals on our planet.
To find out more check out http://www.iapf.org