Damien Mander's entire identity centered around war: as a 19-year-old who joined the Australian Royal Navy and trained as a clearance diver; as a spec-ops sniper; as a member of an elite Tactical Assault Group; and as a special operations soldier in Iraq for several years.
After leaving Iraq in 2008 after 12 tours of duty, Damien was burned out, dispirited, and ill-equipped to manage in civilian society. Still addicted to adventure and thrill, he found his way to Southern Africa, where he started working with the rangers and organizations dedicated to protecting the big animals of Africa from poachers.
Something clicked within his heart as he witnessed a pregnant rhino dying from wounds inflicted by the poachers who took her horn. As he pulled the trigger to put the great beast out of her misery, he knew that his “shitty skillset” that was no use in normal society could do much good in the bush of Africa.
Damien began liquidating the fortune he had amassed while fighting in Iraq, and founded the International Anti-Poaching Federation (IAPF).
Damien came to my attention through a riveting TEDx talk titled “Modern Warrior,” which he gave in Sydney, Australia in May 2013. I couldn't believe my luck when a mutual friend, Gene Stone, introduced us and gave me the chance to speak with this incredible soul.
- getting into diving (and shady entrepreneurship 😉 as a 13-year-old
- “the war starts when the bullets stop” – the challenges of reintegration
- the upsides of military culture
- “What am I here for on this planet?”
- chipping away the macho soldier facade to discover his heart
- the biggest threat in the bush: the very animals being protected
- “we treat our backyard like a fucking garbage dump”
- learning how to run an organization on the fly – expensive mistakes
- having Jane Goodall on the IAPF advisory board
- bringing a fresh set of eyes to conservation
- the economics of poaching – the $10 million rhino herd
- the realities of modern poaching: organized crime using paramilitary tactics
- why elephants and rhinos are “keystone” species for all African wildlife
- fighting against poaching isn't the “ultimate answer” – changing consumption patterns is
- rhino horn and elephant tusk usage has a long cultural heritage
- “I was a shithead to animals”
- the easiest way to protect an animal: don't put it in your mouth
- calling bullshit on humane meat: “I raped your wife ethically: I drugged her first”
- the importance of funding leadership training
- the incredible bravery and self-sacrifice of the world's wildlife rangers
- and much more…
Enjoy, add your voice to the conversation via the comment box below, and please share – that's how we spread our message and spread our roots.
HOWARD: Damien Mander, welcome to the Plant Yourself Podcast!
DAMIEN: Howard, mate, thank you very much for having me on today.
HOWARD: Yeah. So let’s let folks know where you’re calling in from? Give us some context?
DAMIEN: Mate, I am calling in from Victoria Falls in lovely Zimbabwe. I first got based over here in 2009, and I’ve been moving around the region, but this is where I set up shop now, mate, and as they say, home is where you dig it.
HOWARD: [laughs] Right. So let’s begin with the general introduction. I’m guessing that a lot of folks have seen your two TEDx talks, but let’s start with… you founded an international organization, the IAPF, right?
DAMIEN: Correct. Yeah.
HOWARD: So tell us what that is and what you’re up to.
DAMIEN: The IAPF or the International Anti-Poaching Foundation is an organization I set up in 2009 after traveling through the southern half of the continent working with rangers who were stationed down here on the front lines protecting animals and seeing the huge gap that existed between what I experienced as a soldier, a special operations soldier, and spending time in Iraq seeing the budgets that governments were willing to put towards these wars that we were fighting in the Middle East, and you know, it was either fighting for resources in the ground or dotted lines on the map, and I came over here, and I saw these guys fighting for the heart and lungs of the planet and all the animals that inhabit these massive ecosystems.
Whereas I had anything I wanted in the military, working within a half-a-trillion-dollar budget at the time as part of the operation over there, and coming over here and seeing… a lot of guys down here didn’t have boots, ammunition to put in the magazines to go out there and face armed insurgents like poachers. They didn’t even have the right uniforms. You know, it was just a huge imbalance. So I don’t love the drones that control the skies in the Middle East, the defense budgets we used to have or all the equipment I had as a soldier. I only love what a fraction of that could do for the people right here on the front lines.
The IPAF was set up with the mission of wildlife conservation through direct action. So, we go out there and work with rangers. We help build strategies for these guys working in some of the most hostile areas on the continent, and we give them what they need to hold up the last line of defense for the animals.
HOWARD: So you come to this from a background in the military, and your story is so fascinating because you’re such a man of peace, and you’re also born and bred of the military, and you haven’t renounced military tactics and strategies and tools even as you become a man of peace. What got you into the military in the first place way back in the day? What attracted you?
DAMIEN: Yeah, I used to get up as a kid, really young, just 13 years old, and I’d go down to the local pier where fishermen used to fish overnight trying to catch calamari or squid, and I would free dive down there and collect all the [lost] fishing lures, come back up and sell them back to the fishermen. I actually saw this as quite a lucrative business opportunity for a 13-year-old entrepreneur, and I got a heap of shopping trolleys and threw them in the water. Then I went and stole a heap of rope and wrapped it around all the shopping trolleys, and all of a sudden, people came losing more fishing lures, and I started making more money.
DAMIEN: I thought I was just running a good little business at that time, but I was actually preparing myself for one of the hardest military courses on the planet, and that was an entry into the Australian Clearance Diving branch, so I ended up joining the Australian Clearance Diving Association.
HOWARD: So what is Clearance Diving?
DAMIEN: That’s our version of your Seals, Australia’s version of Navy Seals. We do a wide range of different tasks. One of them that branched off after September 11 was a counter-terrorism role, and Australia stood up for what they termed the first and last resort for terrorist attack on home soil, and that was a tactical assault group. After all those selections, there was around 15 men left, and those men formed the first ever TAG East in Australia. I went into the unit and became a sniper, eventually went off to Iraq, working over there as a private contractor and working as an advisor and a specialist with the US military and did a dozen tours there over the years, and finished up like a lot of people did or finished going into these conflict zones.
For a lot of guys out there, the war doesn’t truly start until the bullets stop and you come home and try to reintegrate back into society, and it’s tough. You know, you trained up to these elite standards. You were working with an elite team that surrounds you that is more concerned about your own welfare than you are about looking after yourself, and you just form the most incredibly tight and trusting team that you were ever part of, and you’ve got a very specific task to go out there and achieve missions on a daily basis, and you really have purpose. And it stopped.
It’s really tough for a lot of people that have some of the highest levels of training imaginable, and all of a sudden, the purpose for which they were created is taken away. I ended up in South America traveling around, trying to piece together my life and what to do with... essentially with a shitty set of skillsets I’ve got, you know, not really useful in normal society, and I found use for those skills, and that was in protecting animals.
HOWARD: It’s so interesting because we started this conversation where you were kind of denigrating the reasons for these wars, you know, the resources in the ground and dotted lines on a map, and yet at the same time, you felt a sense of purpose that most people don’t feel. So the sense of purpose must have been very intimate as opposed to… we have this larger purpose within the war effort, right? It was just me and my group helping each other out and accomplishing the task in front of us?
DAMIEN: Yeah, exactly. There was a very specific task that needed to be achieved, and going at it each day and staying alive was the first task and then whatever was thrown at us. Yeah. Where I was, the person I was or the person I grew up as has changed significantly over the years. I was a hunter and the worst type of hunter, the hunter that killed for fun, not for food.
You know, I grew up having very little respect for wildlife or the environment or animals. We had a dog, and that was about the extent of my love of nature. I don’t know what it was, man. I mean Iraq affects anybody that goes over there and sees what’s happening. It affected me seeing what was happening to the local people, the local population. People were just trying to live their lives and having their lives destroyed…
Slowly, this façade I had around me, you know this macho façade, which mostly bullshit, slowly getting thinned out and broken away by seeing all that stuff, I mean, you know, really strong internal contemplation, examination of what I am here for on this planet when it was all over and getting involved with animals.
I came to Africa. I wasn’t looking for a cause. I was looking for a fire. Just like I didn’t join the military to serve my country. I did it because it was adventure. I didn’t go to Iraq to try to help with the situation, I went there to make money. So when I arrived in Africa, it was going to be six-month adventure running around the bush, hunting some poachers and move onto next adventure, next place so I could demonstrate how brave I might be or how macho I am...
HOWARD: At that point, you might have been taking a gig with poachers, as much as against them. There was no…
DAMIEN: Yeah, I used to poach in Australia. I used to go out and illegally hunt deer, and I always liked to be a poacher. I don’t know what it was. Seeing these animals over here in Africa. It affected me in the way that Iraq didn’t affect me. I don’t know what.
Maybe it was a gradual breaking down of this façade at that time that allowed me to start opening up my eyes and seeing the capacity for animals to suffer, and I realized very quickly that there was more to me being here in Africa than just running around the bush for six months having an adventure. Seeing the hard work of these rangers that dedicated everything in their lives to be out there on the front lines, defending nature with their own lives for a very small salary. And here I was trying to have an adventure on the back end of their hard work, and that was wrong.
HOWARD: Were the rangers the first group of people who were like you in terms of putting their lives on the line as warriors who were fighting for some obviously transcendent cause?
DAMIEN: Look, they reminded me of the focus that I had when I was in the military and the groups we were part of. I mean, you could tell us to do anything in the military, and we were programmed to do what we were told, and we were very good at doing that. The rangers were the same, but they had a higher cause. They had a higher cause. I mean, these guys could be out taking other jobs and getting paid more money, but they chose to do this for a small salary and I assume for life, you know 30 or 40 years of being out there switched on in the environment where the biggest threat is not the armed poachers they are trying to stop but the biggest threat is the very animals that they are trying to protect. It very quickly became a reality that there was much more to do this than just spending six months here, and you know, I put my money where my mouth was. I sold everything I had, every cent from every house I’d acquired from the time in the military, my time in Iraq, and I put it towards starting this organization.
HOWARD: So when you were starting to realize that your thrill seeking was sort of cheap and bought at the expense of these people’s lives, what were the conversations you were having? Did you ask them point blank, like “Why are you doing this? It doesn’t make any sense.” Or were they indulgent with you or schooling you? I’m trying to imagine that scene in the movie where you start to unpeel the façade in a powerful way. Can you help me see that?
DAMIEN: Yeah. I’m at there, living with these guys in the bush and experiencing the hardship alongside them, you know being part of their unit, and their hardship was much different than the hardship we had in our military. Our military was like an imposed hardship, you know, we need to train as hard as possible, so we’re the best, whereas the guys in the bush here are not only training and operating in a very difficult environment but they are actually living in it. There is no change for them. That is their entire life.
In the military, I could go on leave, take some time off, take a vacation, go and spend some time in a nice hotel, go to a nice swimming pool, go to a nice bar, go to a nice restaurant. These guys don’t get that, okay? They’re there right now out there in the bush, and it’s not just in Africa, not just in Zimbabwe. All around the world. It doesn’t matter what you are into, watching a National Geographic channel, reading the magazine, coming onto safari to Africa. Anything in the world where it has anything to do with nature, it comes back to one group of people on this planet that are actually responsible for the survival of these ecosystems, and that is rangers, and without them, the natural world would be lost.
HOWARD: What are their motivations? Because I know a lot of them come from communities where there is economic hardship, and maybe some of the poachers are the kids they grew up with who have taken a different approach. What makes them get up every morning and keep doing this? Is it a love of animals, or of Africa, or some other ethic? What drives them?
DAMIEN: Different things drive different people. Some people like the challenge. They’re protecting something, and someone else is trying to take that away from them. Some want the paycheck. Some intrinsically have a higher level of awareness and they ought to protect the animals and protect nature. Some are being born into a family that’s been involved with tourism or with conservation for a long time.
Ultimately, what our job to do is to recognize and understand why people are there in the first place and to give them a very deep understanding that’s ingrained in them over a long period of time that their job is the most important job in the world. We need them to feel like that and understand that. I truly believe that their job is the most important in the world. What is more important than protecting the natural world with your own life?
Yeah, I can’t think of… I mean, we’ve been given one backyard as an international community and we treat it like a fucking garbage dump, and there is this one group of people on the planet – the only group of people on the plant – that give up every single thing in their life to be out there representing the international community and its protection. It’s very hard to be truly inspired in today’s world. There’s a lot of bullshit everywhere. These guys do it for me. They really, truly inspire me. And the opportunity to support them to make their jobs and lives a little bit easier in the difficult task they’ve been given… that’s a great opportunity and great privilege for me.
HOWARD: When you decided to liquidate everything and put all your resources towards this cause… you know, I’m a typical suburban American civilian, so my vision of your life before is from a few Jason Bourne movies where you’ve got your houses around the world, each of them has a fully gassed jeep, and you’ve got passports, and it’s almost like I’m picturing these as various escape hatches for whatever sort of difficulty…
HOWARD: Giving all that up, was it simply like trying to understand it like you liquidate your assets but you could always make more, or was this more like burning the ships as you land? What did it mean to you to do that liquidation?
DAMIEN: I remember watching my own personal banking account going down and having a sense of relief. Because I knew once that the figure hit zero that I would have no other choice but to seriously figure out in a very short space of time how to make this work and how to make it work properly. When we do that, there is no greater motivation than hunger, and hunger comes from an empty bank account, mate. When I spent every cent and made some mistakes in the way of expense, I learned some lessons. I’d like to think of them as school fees. You know, I didn’t go to university, but I’ve gone to university of life and getting involved with it.
You know, I’ve got no business background or nothing. Years ago, when I started this… literally I arrived in Africa with a set of boots and carry-on luggage with my backpack. That was it, and a one-way ticket. I didn’t know how to run a charity or profit organization. I had to figure all that out as we go along. I had to write a legal document, missions, and objectives, how to put together a poster for fund raisers, project proposals for government budget, a report for donors, how to learn how to public speak. I’d never done that before… how to give an interview to a newspaper, a radio station, a TV camera… how to live and work in an African bush with lions, with elephants, with rhinos, and with buffalo, how to wake up with, you know you got snakes and scorpions – deadly scorpions – in your house. All that sort of stuff was a massive learning curve for me, and I’m still learning.
But we built a robust organization that’s now registered in five countries, sixth on its way. It’s been registered in Germany now. We supported over 50 projects in the field while we were running six of our major campaigns. We’ve just been given guides to platinum-level rating and guides to an independent charity evaluator to determine how effective we are with other people’s money in fulfilling our mission. I guess a point five percent of charities achieve that highest status of platinum level. We’ve got the likes of Dr. Jane Goodall who sit as a patron on our advisory board. We’ve been on 60 Minutes a couple of times, National Geographic magazine a couple of times, so we’ve come from literally nothing and grown up over time over the last eight years, and become a real power player in the conservation movement.
HOWARD: So aside from the money that came from all the liquidation of your assets, what did you feel like you could bring that the poaching efforts didn’t already have?
DAMIEN: I brought a fresh set of eyes to conservation. A lot of people have been involved with conservation here for many decades and done a fantastic job. I had the luxury, I suppose I call it, of coming from a current conflict, current special operations units where I could see some of the tactics and equipment that were being used, and trying to dump some of that on the ground here in Africa. Not everything we tried to put in or implement has been perfect, but some of it has been significant.
I think, too, for me when I started this, I was 29. I think experience is really a critical thing particularly if you are managing big projects and growing organizations, but something has gotta be said about the enthusiasm of youth. I don’t know if it was my age, or it was the purpose that I found in this, but I don’t work for living. This is not a job for me, this is a passion. I never get out of bed in the morning and like, “Shit, I gotta go to work” or “I’ve gotta go out and do this or that.” It’s not that. I’m involved with supporting something that’s much larger than me. You know, I’m driven, and I’ve got purpose, and I think that’s a beautiful thing to find. There’s a lot of people, particularly people that come out of the military, don’t have that purpose or struggle to find it. I always found it with traveling, but I had no idea it had anything to do with the animals or the environment. It’s just where I landed, and I’m grateful for that.
HOWARD: So let’s talk a little bit about poaching. You know, my family and I spent a year in South Africa 2011–2012, so we got to see these amazing, beautiful animals, and we would hear stories and see images. But for someone who’s not thought about this much, what’s the state of African wildlife regarding their health, their numbers, and what does poaching have to do with it?
DAMIEN: Yes, us as an organization we focus on protecting the hardest animals to look after. The hardest animals are elephant and rhino, and the reason that they’re the hardest to look after is because of the value of their horn. In the case of rhino, it runs 35-40,0000 US dollars a pound, and a rhino can easily have 30 pounds on it…
HOWARD: Wait, say the number again? $35- 40,000 a pound?
DAMIEN: Correct. Yeah, and you can have 30 to 40 pounds on a rhino, no problems. You can have five to six rhinos in a herd, no problems. So, these things should be locked up in a safe, not running around in the bush. The second high-target species, as we like to refer to it, is elephant because of the value of its tusk. There’s somewhere between 350 and 550,000 elephants around the continent dying at the rate of around 30 to 35,000 a year. You can see that if something drastic isn’t done, these animals are going to continue marching towards extinction.
Now, what we do in developing strategies to protect the hardest animals to look after. These animals have been targeted by organized crime syndicates that use paramilitary tactics. That is where our skills are most appropriately deployed. When we develop these strategies and when we get them run, there are millions of other animals in these ecosystems that get to survive, that get to live because of these key, high-target species, and that is what really makes me tick. That’s my purpose.
So it’s not just looking after the sexy animals and the ones that are on the posters that people get on the airplane to come over here and take photographs of, but it’s the millions of other animals in these ecosystems that have the same capacity to care as chickens or a human, as rhinos and elephants to experience suffering, the same animals that have exactly the same want as you or I to build family structures and have safety to be able to live out their life the way they are intended to, so that is their purpose as an organization. My purpose as an individual is to make sure that the teams have what they need to be able to go and lead those operations.
Rhinos… We’re seeing a rhino poaching war. These animals are highly evolved for 15 million years. A rhino poaching war has been spiraling out of control for the last decade. One of their projects would be focusing on the Mozambique-South African border, which is home to around 40 percent of the world’s remaining rhinos in the area there.
We went in there eight years into a losing war. We were able to set up a ground-level offensive against an insurgency that has had such a significant impact in that area in stopping poachers, seizing heavy caliber rifles and protecting rhino that for the first time in the decade last year we actually saw a regional downturn in rhino poaching and that was because of the collaborative effort there from multiple agencies that we were part of leading that allowed the Kruger National Park, home to up to 40 percent of the world’s rhino to re-appropriate their resources to other more vulnerable flanks, and that regional downturn last year actually led to an international downturn in rhino poaching.
We don’t appeal to everybody in the way we operate or what we do. We appeal to that people that understand that another conference or another billboard in Asia today is not going to protect one of these animals right now. Long term, maybe, but today, the only thing that’s going to save one of these animals is a good person with a gun standing out there in the bush willing to be between that animal and the poacher’s bullet that is coming towards it. That’s a shitty reality, but that’s the world we’ve created for ourselves to manage.
HOWARD: Hmmm. So I’ve got a couple of questions based on that. First, help me understand how millions of other animals depend on these keystone species.
DAMIEN: People come to Africa to see the scenery, to see the wildlife. They’ve got the big five here, which rhino and elephant make up two fifths. Now, when areas lose all of their elephants or all of their rhinos, the tourists stop coming. They go somewhere else. When the tourists stop coming, the money stops coming in. When the money stops coming in, the antipoaching unit stops functioning. The community starts coming in, and they start poaching all the other animals. The fences come down, the wires are used in snaring of more animals. Eventually, there is no more animals left, trees come down, you have desertification, and the river stops flowing, and you’ve got a barren piece of land. Okay? All the other animals in that piece of land have been killed.
In my mind and in my conscience, there is not a difference here between a squirrel and an elephant, only the difference we allow ourselves to financially allocate or intrinsically value. But in protecting those animals and going after donors and saying, “Look, this is a flow and effect if we don’t protect, say an elephant or rhino, everything else dies.” Then, we can sort of put things in perspective, and we might realize how important it is to have well-armed, well-trained antipoaching units there because when we don’t… I’ve seen what happens when we don’t.
Everything gets killed. Everything gets killed, and when something new should wander into that area, it gets killed very quickly. Rhinos wandering into the area of Mozambique that we now help protect had a life expectancy between 12 to 24 hours before we got there. They’d been declared extinct in Mozambique. We’re now supporting and protecting the only population of rhinos in that country.
So, these are not the ultimate answers. I go to work every day accepting that, knowing that what I do every day is not the ultimate answer. The ultimate answer lies in getting people on the other side of the world that want to be consumers in these products to NOT consume. We don’t know how long that’s going to take. It could take five years, it could take 500.
These organizations specialize in as much marketing that work in demand reduction in countries like Vietnam and China. They specialize in that as much as we specialize in setting up ground teams of rangers and going out there against an insurgency. There are organizations that specialize in working with communities, getting them to a point where maybe one day they don’t need to look at poaching, to 1) fund a lavish lifestyle which some of them lead or 2) [to have] a different subsistence level putting food on the table.
There’s going to be two billion people on this continent by 2040, up to six billion by the end of the century. So, how do you get those people to value long-term preservation of wildlife? I don’t know. But what I do know is that if we don’t hold on to what we have left, if we don’t stop the hemorrhaging, by the time these other organizations and entities that we work with alongside have come up whatever the ground scheme is going to be, not on a Mozambique or Zimbabwe or southern African scale but on a global scale… by the time they have come up with a master plan, there’d still be something left. If we fail to acknowledge the true reality of what rangers need to be out there on the front lines defending these animals and these ecosystems – if we don’t acknowledge that – there will be nothing left.
HOWARD: What does fuel the demand? You know, I have trouble believing that the actual properties of rhino horns are worth 40,000 dollars a pound, and I guess there’s a lot of mythology or folklore or traditional remedies… What are people paying that amount of money for, do you think?
DAMIEN: In your mind and perhaps even in mine, it might seem a little crazy that someone in Asia wants to cut the horn of a rhino and crush it up to use it in medicine. However, they have used forms of traditional medicine as far back as, particularly rhino horn, at least 2,000 years and other forms of traditional medicine for much longer.
Now, for someone who has grown up in a family or in a household where everyone believes in traditional medicine whether they be plant-based or animal-based, it’s very hard for us who come from a completely different background to come in and get on their soapbox and say, “Hey guys, we’ve run these things through in the lab, and it doesn’t work.” Okay? It’s very hard for us to understand how someone from another culture could even perceive that something like rhino horn could have any value whatsoever. But to them it does, and I think we need to acknowledge that.
So, whether scientifically it does or doesn’t have any medicinal benefits, in the mind of the person that takes it, it does, and if we fail to acknowledge that, then we fail to understand just how dynamic the market can be there in terms of rhino horn.
Now, I believe that a lot of rhino horn is being stockpiled within the black market and trickled into the market at a slower rate than what the demand actually may be, and that is keeping the price very high. But it is being used as it has been used as far back as 2,000 years as a form of fever reduction. What is being marketed now is as a miracle cure-all from cancer to hangovers. But it’s also being used as a status-related good. That’s same as wearing a Rolex or driving a Ferrari. It demonstrates wealth, which carries great importance in certain business circles in countries such as Vietnam or China.
HOWARD: This gets really complicated in terms of who are the good guys, who are the bad guys. In a sense… you simplified it for yourself to say that until we can figure all this out as a human species on this planet, I’m just going to stand between these beautiful, hunted animals and their extinction.
DAMIEN: Yeah, exactly. I had a couple of things on this planet when I came here. I had money and skills. Money was needed to help the rangers and get this organization going, and the skills were needed to equip these guys to go out there and have a greater chance of survival themselves but also to protect the ecosystems they operate within.
Look, if the elephant and rhino crisis is solved, I guarantee you that another species is going to move into that void. And as we get more and more people on this continent and around the world, piling up in these larger communities bordering on these natural wilderness areas, you are going to have an increasing level of pressure coming on these species in these areas. Taller fences and more guns are not the ideal solution.
I guarantee you, though, that one thing I want in this world is be out of work. But at the moment, you’ve got an increasing problem. It’s not difficult to solve inside these wilderness areas. It just requires going back to basics and getting the rangers teams training up to the right levels and having a good manager in place. Where it becomes complex is outside of the wilderness areas, in the communities across the ocean in Asia. That is complex. I can write on the back of a bus ticket what it takes to protect these wilderness areas inside. It becomes complex outside.
HOWARD: Are there conflicts within these southern African governments where you’re working around because they want tourism and they want to be seen as good global citizens? Are they receiving billions of black market dollars that make it hard for them to say no to poaching or to fund the rangers appropriately?
DAMIEN: I don’t think they’re receiving huge sums of money, definitely not in millions or billions, but there are certain people involved at certain levels within particular countries, bearing in mind there are 50, 60 different countries across the continent here, each with their own political landscape. There are people that are involved in politics and involved in poaching, and Africa is fraught with corruption. It’s something that needs to be managed. Coming to Africa and getting upset with corruption is like going to the beach and getting pissed off with the sand.
DAMIEN: It’s there. Expect it. You just need to learn how to manage it. You know, some of the countries we operate in are better than others. But bearing in mind, we’d like to go where situations are worse. That’s also the reason why some of the regions where we operate in are as hostile as they are. That’s often because there’s regional and political and economic instability. You know, that’s just the nature of the sort of work we’re involved in. We need to go where the problem is worse.
HOWARD: Hmmm. One of the things I’ve been feeling during this interview is my own privilege around being able to be totally outraged at poaching, and even my question about – the way I phrased it about – the medicinal uses, I could hear… you sort of gently corrected me around not feeling superior to people with traditional views. The first time I came across you and your work was the TED talk you gave in Sydney, where you started out by saying, “At the end I’m gonna ask you a question … the reason I came all the way here from Africa to Sydney is to ask you this one question,” and you tell your story, and in the end you really took me by surprise by basically challenging the audience about why they eat meat.
HOWARD: The leap for me was staggering. First of all, what got YOU to connect your own food habits of the animals that are not wildlife, that are not endangered, you know there are more of them than us. What was the thought process that got you to see the way you were eating as part of the same issue?
DAMIEN: I walked around the bush for the better of four years protecting one group of animals and coming home and eating another one, and I knew I was full of shit the whole time I was doing it. And I came up with some of the most fantastical excuses as to why I could keep eating cows and keep eating chickens and going out protecting rhinos, and eventually it was too much for me. I couldn’t bullshit myself anymore, really. What I was thinking and believing and how I was acting were heading off into completely different directions. It was denial followed by ridicule, followed by violent internal opposition, followed by research, followed by acceptance, followed by action.
Yeah, it’s… for me, personally, the best thing I’ve ever done in my life is the choice to go vegan. I don’t even have to get out of bed, and I’m doing the right thing by animals. That’s the way it feels to me. It’s like a huge weight… a huge burden got lifted off my shoulders. My passion isn’t actually antipoaching. My passion is motivating other people to care about animals. But this is the tool I got actually to put my skills and our teams into action in the field protecting animals.
My other weapon is my mouth and talking to people about my transformation, my change because I was a shithead to animals, you know, a really bad person to animals. My point of difference to a lot of people, you know, this war that we’re fighting on behalf of animals, you and me and anybody else out there. It takes all different people of all different shapes and sizes. You know, I can stand there and I can talk to a hundred or I can talk to some of the worst cases out there because I used to be one of them. If I could demonstrate change, open up my heart and my conscience to animals and their desperate need for protection in all aspects of life, then I think anybody is open to change.
You know, these animals are just innocent creatures, mate. They deserve protection on so many levels and us as species, us as a society, us as one of the five million species on this planet, we’re the only species that has the power to determine what level of suffering is acceptable for all other animals to endure. We should be protecting them, particularly us as men. Men are perceived, and we tell everybody that we’re the strong ones and the protectors, and we should be protecting animals up there with everything else that we proclaim to use our strengths for looking after. Animals are out there with the most vulnerable in society
Yeah, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea because it makes people feel uncomfortable, the same way I used to be uncomfortable. I was uncomfortable because it challenged the truth, challenged something that was an inconvenience to my habits, and once I realized or accepted how full of shit I was, it was a pretty quick transformation and a really enriching and enlightening one for me.
HOWARD: Hmmm, I’m telling this story in my own mind trying to understand how you went from the self-described shithead that you were to animals to someone who could see their innocence and their beautiful nature. It almost feels like you had to do that to yourself. Was there part of that? You had this kind of, see your own innocence even though you had spent your life as a war mercenary, as a sniper that you had to return to some beautiful primal sense of yourself or did that come later?
DAMIEN: I think life for all of us is a journey of self-evolution. You cut away the bits that don’t work, you go at them and keep the bits that do. That’s all I’ve been trying to do – get rid of the bad stuff and keep the good stuff. This is for me a really… I have purpose. I have passion. I am driven by this. Protecting not just animals out here in the bush in Africa but the ones that I choose not to eat. It’s the easiest way to protect the animal – don’t stick it in your mouth.
You know, all the bullshit you hear out there in society about all these animals being ethically killed. There’s no ethical way to kill something that doesn’t want to or doesn’t deserve to die. It’s like me saying I ethically raped your wife. I drugged her first, so she didn’t know what was coming. Some animal gets a bullet in the back of their head while it’s not looking just because they grow up on a green pasture. That’s bullshit. We can’t do this to animals.
The greatest cause of animal suffering on this planet is the meat industry. The greatest negative environmental impact on this planet that we have is the meat industry. It is helping to drive us deeper and at a more rapid rate into the sixth mass extinction on this plant, and for the first time in history it is a manmade phenomenon. The single greatest thing each one of us can do is to really step back and assess what it is we put on our dinner plates because we’re digging the grave of our species and all the other generation with our own teeth.
HOWARD: Before I let you go, how can people find out more? How can they get involved? What are some ways for people who have been inspired to reach out to you directly to support the IAPF? What can listeners do?
DAMIEN: Thanks, Howard. I won’t beat around the bush. We have people, men and women, out in the bush that carry weapons and are required to do the job of a soldier on behalf of nature. These people, we operating these people, are like a small army and need funding to keep these guys and gals out there in the bush to make sure that they’ve got the right field equipment, salaries, uniforms, rations, tents, vehicles, fuel, aircraft, K9 tracking units that cost money. We need money. I used to hate asking for money, and then I realized it’s not for me. It’s for the animals, and it’s for the people.
We’re not going to ask people around the world to pick up an AK47 and come and spend next 30 years living in a tent. We’ll do that for you, okay? But what we do need around the world is an extended family of people that want to be part of the solution. These are not Africa’s animals. These are global assets. It’s a global responsibility for us to look after them. So no matter what figure people can spare, whether it’s the same as a cup of coffee a day or maybe someone wants to put their hand a little deeper and purchase a vehicle. Whatever it may be, we’re appreciative of all and any contributions to the International Anti-Poaching Foundation. People can check out our website at IAPF.org or just Google antipoaching and they’ll see it come up in one of the top pages there.
My one primary request is that people become involved with the financial side of the organization and helping drive these operations on the ground. The second one is we have a program called Green Army where we have people from around the world that come over and live with our rangers two to three or four weeks at a time, patrolling with them, helping these guys with all different aspects of their daily job, and people get to see Africa and experience Africa on foot. That other side of the two-way street is that the rangers understand that people in the world care about what they do and are willing to get on an airplane and come over and tell them about it. It’s really important for the motivation and morale of these guys. That’s my two main requests. That and the third one – go vegan. That’s the best thing you can do for the environment. I imagine I’m probably preaching to the converted out there…
HOWARD: Hopefully not. Hopefully, this message gets shared beyond the choir.
DAMIEN: I hope so. I appreciate people’s telling as well. There’s a lot of causes out there today. Ninety-five percent of philanthropic funding around the world goes to humanitarian causes. Ninety-five percent pushed into looking after one species, and the other five percent goes to looking after the rest of the species and the entire natural world. So, we’ve already got a small slice of the pie to be playing amongst, but we make it go a long way.
HOWARD: Yeah, it’s funny. Yesterday I was interviewing Will Bonsall, who is kind of the opposite of you in many superficial respects. He is sort of a hippie, back-to-nature homesteader, and he has been self-funding something he calls the ScatterSeed Project, which is saving seeds and plant stocks of plants that are going extinct… you know, these different varieties, and it feels very much like the same thing – you and your rangers and he and his seed savers. You both have a vision for what the world could be like, and if you weren’t doing the stuff on the ground right now however you can, then we are not going to have the building material to create the beautiful world in the future.
DAMIEN: Yeah. Yeah. Look, I went through a couple of years of despair just thinking this is all lost and what’s the purpose here and what am I doing… Now, it’s actually magnificent. Yeah, we have wars that are being lost, wildlife wars that are being lost in certain places around the continent, but there are some that are being won. A good group of rangers is able to protect one of these entire ecosystems, and within that millions of animals get to live out their lives. You know, the situation would be much worse if we weren’t all doing what we’re doing, so if that’s any motivation for anybody that the more I support, the more animals will get to live out their lives, I couldn’t think of a better reason to support some of the organizations out there that are doing… whether it’s working in the communities or working on the front lines supporting rangers.
HOWARD: Great. What’s next for you? While you’re continuing with this work, are there any things that you’re planning or working on or looking to do in the next few months or years?
DAMIEN: Yeah, we’re about to start phase two of the training program that will train 16 anti-poaching instructors over the next two years. The flow and effect of that in the next two years would be the training of 40 rangers. This anti-poaching ranger college goes to the heart of one of the biggest gaps in the conservation industry, and that is good, young leaders that can go out there and run these types of operations. The top priority in conservation around this continent is law enforcement. If you can’t protect an area, then we can’t conserve it. What we’re missing in so many areas is right leaders to run these operations. There’s no such thing as bad soldiers, only bad generals. We just don’t have enough of the right people at the moment not only within our organization but across the whole continent.
A report that came in last year said one percent of philanthropic funding here is spent on leadership training. That means one percent has been determining how effective the other 99 percent is being utilized. And if we’re getting it right as an industry, the situation would be much better. So, our focus now in east and southern Africa is training instructors.
We’re working a lot on special investigations in Mozambique and South Africa, so that’s actually going right up the food chain, going to the kingpins of some of these organized crime syndicates and trying to dismantle and disrupt their operations. I mean it’s okay to be getting all these guys on the ground, guys that are pulling the trigger and killing the animals, but we want to go after their bosses, the people that are sending them out there in the field, people that are paying them, people that are trafficking in rhino horn and elephant ivory. These people are not poachers. They are criminals. They’re involved with child prostitution, guns, drugs and human trafficking, and rhino horn and ivory is just another currency for them.
So we’re like special operations of conservation. We’re a small group of people that can do big jobs with minimal resources. We’d like to go to the hardest hit areas, and you know, we’re always scoping new projects and finishing others. Our job is to go and stabilize an area, build a project up and hand the project over to local stakeholders once capacity has been built. To put it in a military sense, it would be like special forces coming in and stabilizing a region and handing it over to the regular army.
HOWARD: Wow. Well, you know, you’ve spent your life doing things that other people didn’t want to do, and the job in front of you right now is so important and so inspiring, and there’s so much heartbreak and hope in it that it’s been such an honor to get your perspective, to learn about you and your story. I really hope that the listeners are going to dig deep because without this work, as distasteful as some of it might be to comfortable suburbanites who can drive to Whole Foods and not have to think about it, this is the front lines of the fight for our planet, for our humanity, and for our collective nature.
DAMIEN: Yeah, thank you very much. I appreciate the time and the platform and just chatting with you, man. It’s nice. I know we’re on a similar wavelength.
HOWARD: Yep, I’m almost speechless and just in awe of the spirit that has flowed through you and through so many people and your redemption and the clarity of your vision. It’s really helped me to remember why I’m doing this too, so Damien, thank you so much for all you do and for taking the time today. The links for people to find out more and to hopefully contribute to the cause will be in the show notes for this episode.
DAMIEN: I really appreciate that. We can’t change history, but we can rewrite the future for every animal and every ecosystem that we choose to make a difference for, and for me that’s more powerful than any sniper rifle, any war machine or any defeatist notion that individual efforts mean nothing so why bother, so yeah, thank you very much.
HOWARD: Right on. Go from strength to strength, Damien. Be well.
DAMIEN: Thank you, sir. Good bye.
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The Plant Yourself Podcast theme music, “Dance of Peace (Sabali Don),” is generously provided by Will Ridenour, a kora player from North Carolina who has trained with top Senegalese musicians.
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