Once you have seen animals in the wild, protecting them can become an obsession, as it did for Damien Mander, who came to talk and show photographs Oct. 29, 2019 at Benaroya Hall in Seattle. It was the first event we have signed up for called “National Geographic Live.” I found out that I have fallen out of practice taking notes in the dark. So here’s from memory and the brochure handed out in the entry hall.
It seems that Mander is obsessed with more than saving wild animals. In fact, it looks as if he goes into all stages of his life in an obsessive fashion, out to do it all well, energetically and to the nth degree. Born in Australia, he was obsessed with water, could not stay out of the sea. He became a “clearance diver” in the Australian Navy.
Then on to Special Forces as a sniper and then a trainer in the Iraq War. He served three years there before abandoning it.
“The second mistake we made there, besides getting into it, was disbanding the Iraqi army,” Mander said. That took the jobs away from not just the soldiers, but also the income to the extended families depending on those jobs, alienating millions who probably were not sorry to see Saddam Hussein go and might have signed on to rebuild the nation.
Mander bounced around South America — photos of what looked like a good time in bars, but maybe not, as he also mentioned the statistics on Iraq War veterans’ suicides. Then to Africa where he was introduced to nature and had an epiphany — my word — when looking into the eyes of a buffalo that had ripped itself apart in a trap set by poachers. As his companion shot that animal, putting it out of its misery, Mander had found his next obsession.
In 2009, he founded the International Anti Poaching Foundation to preserve an ecosystem by “training and equipping rangers to fight the poaching crisis in Africa.” Given that a pound of ivory from an elephant’s tusk is worth $35,000 in Vietnam, it is no wonder that people in Zimbabwe, where 72 percent of the population is below the poverty line, would be attracted to poaching. So arresting poachers was taking the income from many families there, causing conflicts with local communities.
In 2017, the IAPF started “Akashinga,” which means Brave Ones in the Shona language. The idea was to empower “disadvantaged women to restore and manage a network of wilderness areas as an alternative economic model to trophy hunting” and poaching. As the brochure says:
“The women of Akashinga have built strong relationships with the locals, de-escalated conflict and invested into their communities. The community response to this was to work with us in conservation, rather than against us.”
A squad leader, Vimbai Kumire, who barely reaches up to the chest of Mander, also addressed us at Benaroya. Despite her diminutive size, she showed that passion could be more powerful than bullets. She told of the importance of animals to their culture and country and explained that it was not only an honor to protect them but was also providing income for her family and dignity for herself.
Many of the arrests made — “without firing a single shot” — are related to organized crime and the use of poisons.
“Syndicates have been broken open and we have been advised of an 80% reduction in elephant poaching across the region since 2016,” the brochure says.
The organization now has the responsibility for protecting wildlife in more than one million acres. The most asked question, Mander says, by those arrested is not “Why am I being arrested?” but “Why am I being arrested by a woman?”
“For so long, our vision has been clouded by ego from seeing the most powerful force in nature — a woman’s instinct to protect.”
It may take all of that and more to protect the wildlife in Africa. With more than two billion people living on that continent by 2040, the loss of wildlife habitat will continue to grow. According to an article in the Oct. 10, 2019 edition of The Times of London (picked up in Amsterdam on our way home from Africa), many countries have lost their rhinoceros populations because of habitat loss: Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria, Chad.
Because of poaching, the rhino population in Botswana could be wiped out in two years, the article said. Rhino horns fetch $50,000 per kilogram in Asia, where they are used in traditional therapies. Botswana has fewer than 400 rhinos and has lost one a month in 2019, a rate that is still increasing. Conservationists blame part of that on President Mokgweetsi Masisi, who has disarmed the anti-poaching unit. His predecessor, Ian Khama, had an “unofficial shoot-to-kill” policy.
The rhinos we saw in Kenya were kept under armed guard. Not chained up or penned, but accompanied by the guards. Theirs is a dangerous way to make a living. A plaque on the overlook into the Ngorongoro Crater listed conservationists who have lost their lives, including six killed by poachers or bandits.
“In truth, there are really only a few things that matter: character and spirit,” Mander writes in the brochure. “If you don’t have those things, you don’t have a chance. CV’s, references, qualifications and fitness levels mean nothing here. We don’t want perfect. We want scrappers. someone that knows what it’s like to have to fight for survival. The rest will be learned.”