22 August 2015

Interview with Damien Mander: The Man Behind A Cause

Being fortunate enough to hear Dr Jane Goodall speak at Chimp Eden, South Africa, earlier in the year, I also met a man that demands attention. Not only is he tall and riddled with tattoos, but his mission and unselfish commitment to bringing an end to illegal wildlife trade is nothing short of inspirational.

Months later, Damien Mander gave of his time to conduct a Skype interview with me, and I would like to share it with all of you...


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Are we ready to start?
Give me a few to grab a beer and then you can shoot.

After a few...

Firstly, thank you, Damien, for offering up a moment of your time.
No worries, mate. I should have done it a long time ago, it’s just that I would have rescheduled a few times anyway with being all over the place, so I thought I’d wait until I’m back home at the office.

Secondly, and I’m not sure how much of a sport fan you are, but congratulations on Australia taking the ICC World Cup.
Yeah, I very much enjoy my cricket. I watched the match with my new friend - a Kiwi who was raised in England and that now calls South Africa home. It was loads of fun, especially with the good win over New Zealand in the final.

Having served with armed forces from all over the world and in areas we only see on television, your resume is pretty impressive… you’re some kind of GI Joe…
Not quite, mate. I initially got involved with the diving side of things when I was growing up. I’d go free diving every morning before school in the cold water off Melbourne to collect fishing lures that had been lost over night, and then sold them back to the fishermen. Doing that from the age of thirteen or fourteen, I saved up and bought my own scuba kit. From there I continued diving for fun and got all my tickets. I then applied to the navy and joined up as an electronics technician.

After September 11th, the Australian government was tasked with setting up a small niche operations unit designed as a countermeasure for any terrorist acts on home soil. Direct entries were opened up to the Australian public for the first time in history, and then also to the entire Australian Defence Force. I made my way over there and was awarded a platoon due to my diving background, initially on a national level, which also allowed me entry to snipers. After six years in the Australian military, I discharged and took off to Iraq where I got involved with the privatised sector.

Can you tell us how a person with a military background like yours got involved with nature conservation in the first place?
My military background was always about adventure and challenging myself, more than anything else. It wasn’t really a sense of patriotism, which could be seen as a good or bad thing, but that same mind-set led me to Africa. Without that, I wouldn’t have ended up here, and without being here I wouldn’t have opened my eyes. I suppose we can all look back at where we’ve come from and where we’re going, but you can’t take a course in life without having walked the steps you’ve taken.

I came over to South Africa to get involved with anti-poaching, but it was only supposed to be a six month adventure. And again I was doing things for myself and not for others with a “Where is Damien Mander going to get his next bit of excitement, and where is the next picture for his Facebook profile going to come from?” attitude. When I arrived, I spent a lot of time with one of the least appreciated groups of people in the world: the rangers. Whether involved with conservation, NGOs or game lodges, for them it all comes back to protecting what is on the ground. And having seen what I’ve seen and having spent time in the parks and reserves with these guys, I realised they do the most important job in the world. They risk their lives every day, not so much against the poachers they’re trying to stop but more against the wild animals they are trying to protect, and seeing them do it for a couple of hundred bucks a month made me think I’ve got to wake up and look at these people who have selflessly given themselves up to protect nature. There and then I realised that there was far more to life than running around trying to scratch your own itch. Never being a bull-shitter, I decided to put my money where my mouth is and ended up selling everything I had in Australia to set up the International Anti-Poaching Foundation.

We met at the Jane Goodall Institute, Chimp Eden… How long have you known Dr Jane and do you work with her organisation in any way?
Jane sits in a formal position on our international advisory council, and has done so for more than three years now. I’ve known of her work for a lot longer, and people like her teach us one very important thing: Commitment to nature is not a temporary or part time job. It’s a responsibility we should all take on, and when we do it must be a lifelong commitment.

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Please join me tomorrow when the interview continues and we find out more about Damien's view on poaching and his mission for the future.

For more information on IAPF and similar organisations, please click on the Reading Rhino to your right, which I have named Elena, after the illustrator that designed it.


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