A Venn Diagram of a “perfect” vegan would intersect around a few key areas: avoiding all animal products; working to change existing policies and practices that exploit animals; taking every measure to protect or rescue as many animals from cruelty as possible; and being a consistent voice of encouragement for other humans to do the same. In this diagram of ideals, Damien Mander stands dead center.
Founder and CEO of the International Anti-Poaching Foundation (IAFP), Mander didn’t come to animal rights out of an inherent love for animals. Nor was it disdain for the meat and dairy industries that set him on his course. He wasn’t particularly moved to stop the climate crisis or rescue stray dogs off the street. The former Australian Royal Navy diver and sniper was simply out to save his own life.
Combat Takes Its Toll
Mander spent a decade in the service with three years fighting in Iraq. After he left the service, Mander found himself in South America, and he was quickly closing in on rock bottom. Rattled by his years in combat, he began “a rapid downward spiral of drugs and alcohol,” he told me on a recent call from his home in Zimbabwe.
He stresses that although his personal struggles were severe, the real victims of the war were and still are the Iraqi people “who had their country and culture obliterated.” But being a part of that obliteration left him destitute and fighting his own internal battles. “For me, leaving Iraq and the military meant that a decade and career of purpose, for whatever reason, was finished,” he said.
“For many [veterans] the real war doesn’t start until the bullets stop, and you try to reintegrate back into normal life, with far too much time for reflection.” Mander says there’s no job for a sniper in the local newspaper when you get back home. And that feeling that finding purpose is its own new battle can take a significant toll. According to the RAND Center for Military Health Policy Research, at least 20 percent of vets who served in either Iraq or Afghanistan suffer from either bouts of major depression or post-traumatic stress disorder.
Mander realized he was faced with a critical choice: Either continue his downward spiral or find a new purpose. Not sure whether he’d yet chosen the former or the latter, Mander found himself in Johannesburg, traveling the southern parts of the African continent looking for ideas as to where to go next. He became interested in going after wild animal poachers in what he calls a “self-centered adventure.” He’d read about people going to Africa, bringing their own rifles, and working with rangers to stop poaching. It married a bit of the familiarity of military life with that new adventure he craved.
Poachers have devastated Africa. The animals long synonymous with the continent have been steadily declining in the last century, largely due to poaching and loss of habitat. According to the African Wildlife Foundation, 97 percent of the black rhinoceros population has been destroyed since 1960—the species is essentially now extinct in the wild. Fewer than 1,000 mountain gorillas remain in the lush forests of Uganda, Rwanda, and the Republic of Congo; lion populations have been cut by nearly 50 percent in just the last two decades. More than 35,000 African elephants are killed every year—mostly for their tusks.
The poaching trade lures Africans to kill their native wildlife by paying them premiums for tusks, paws, pelts, or bones. Poached for collectors and the belief that some hold medicinal benefits, the allure of fast money has come to hold more value than protecting the world’s most magnificent beasts.
Mander felt like six months running around Africa with his guns made for a good way to spend his time.
“But it changed me,” he says. “Seeing the rangers—what they do and what they give up. This is one of the most noble tasks and the last line of defense for nature with very little recognition for what they’re doing.”
The International Anti-Poaching Foundation
What he thought would be six months before his next adventure has turned into his life’s purpose. He liquidated his life savings in 2009 to start the International Anti-Poaching Foundation. In just over ten years, the IAPF has scaled to train and support enough rangers to help protect more than 20 million acres of African wilderness.
The organization works to build strategic programs and partnerships to protect and restore habitat, while also working on national and ecoregional-scale conservation policies. At its core is a commitment to empower indigenous people to protect their sovereign lands.
Academy-Award winning filmmaker James Cameron just released a short documentary, “Akashinga” about Mander’s Akashinga project launched in 2017. The film premiered during National Geographic’s EarthXFilm Festival in late April. It follows the AIFP’s all-vegan-all-female led anti-poaching ranger team as they work to protect Africa’s wildlife. The project hopes to have more than 1,000 female rangers in place by 2025. “We need an armed component,” he told the BBC in 2018, “but we need to start moving more and more of our resources into communities, and the best people for that are women.”
Mander appears in the 2018 documentary, “The Game Changers” (produced by Cameron). The film aims to debunk the myth that meat is necessary for high-performance athletes, or in Mander’s case, for former Navy snipers. While watching a screening of the film at a packed theater in Los Angeles last year, Mander’s intense segment was the only part of the film met with roaring cheers and applause from the audience. He strikes a nerve whenever he speaks publicly. When he’s not working with the AIFP rangers, he, like another famed voice for African conservation, Jane Goodall, spends his time on a speaker circuit, telling his story, stories of his rangers, and the countless animals they risk their lives to save.
It’s that same passion and conviction that has brought more than seven million views to his 2013 Sydney TEDx talk. The Australian native does not mince his words. He speaks directly and passionately about his activism.
Saving One Animal But Eating Another
Mander says it became increasingly difficult to spend his days protecting all sorts of wild animals to then come home and put another animal on his plate. He wrestled with his conscience.
“I was being a [expletive] hypocrite,” he said “I was telling everyone how important it is to look after animals. But there I was, night after night supporting an industry that is responsible for the greatest environmental degradation on this planet and the death of more animals than any other conceivable scar in history.”
“Not only was I a part of that, but I was paying someone else to do my dirty work,” he says, pointing to the meat and dairy industries. He went vegan and never looked back. “It’s the single most defining decision of my life.”
Mander is married now, with children. They live in Harare, Zimbabwe, but he still spends countless hours in the wild, tracking poachers, recruiting rangers, and finding new ways of protecting animals. “There’s always more to be done,” he says. With “Akashinga” now out and receiving praise, his work is getting more recognition than ever before.
He points to another activist who put everything on the line for his beliefs, civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “He summed it up so perfectly: ‘There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take that position because his conscience tells him it is right,’” Mander says. It’s that last part that he says defines his work—”because his conscience tells him it is right.”
There’s a lot of gut-checking that goes into the anti-poaching work. It is the same gut-check that left Mander feeling hollow after Iraq. But the line between right and wrong couldn’t be more clear now, whether that’s human rights or animal rights, he says. And in Africa, as with the rest of the world, they’re intrinsically connected.
“It’s not just about elephants being killed for their tusks or rhinos for their horns,” he says. “It’s the trees that get cut down, it’s the rivers that stop flowing. It’s all that. It’s the insects. It’s the soil. It all works together. Now, our future as a civilization is directly affected by all of this.”
Mander says doing this work is still considered radical. Whether on the front lines of the poaching wars or simply choosing not to put animals on your plate, bucking convention can make it hard to follow your gut.
“It takes bravery to stand up in a society where you know you are the minority,” he says. “But we have to, now more than ever, be able to stand up and say ‘look, I don’t care what you say. What we’re doing is wrong, and I’m going to change that.’”