Sentient Media Podcast: Damien Mander on His Journey From Soldier to Animal Activist

We caught up with Damien Mander, founder of the International Anti-Poaching Foundation, to talk about how reliance on the meat industry is hindering our ability to protect wild places.

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Damien Mander, a.k.a. “The Vegan Sniper,” founder of the International Anti-Poaching Foundation, has been changing the way we protect our wildlife since 2009. In this interview, Sentient Media’s Executive Director, Ana Bradley, explores how women are leading change for Africa’s wildlife, the need for conservationists to champion plant-based living, and a typical day in the life of the Vegan Sniper. 

Ana Bradley: Hello and welcome to Sentient Media’s podcast, where we’re meeting people who are changing the way we think about and interact with animals and the living world around us. So musicians and creators of the new documentary, ‘Highway to Health’ Tanya O’Callaghan and Derek Green, I think it was mainly Tanya who nominated today’s guest. I’m particularly excited to introduce Damian Mander aka The Vegan Sniper.  I think it’s fair to say that Damien’s backstory is pretty well known at this point. But for those who don’t know, very briefly Damien is an Iraq War veteran who served as a naval clearance diver, and a special ops sniper, now he’s the founder of the International Anti-Poaching Foundation, which started in 2009, in Zimbabwe, and since then has grown to over 200 staff in five countries. And in December 2020, they raised $1 million. The team operates on the frontlines with a completely female ranger team, who can be seen in action in the beautiful National Geographic documentary, Akashinga, which translates as “the brave ones.” Damien, thank you so much for joining us today.

Damien Mander: Thank you for having us, Ana. Thanks, Tanya. For the nomination.

Ana Bradley: I’m super curious. I have so many pictures of what a day in your life might look like. Is there a typical day for you, like, you wake up in the morning and you go for a run and save a rhino? 

Damien Mander: I wear a bunch of hats. We’ve built such an amazing team over the last four years, I sort of come up to 30,000 feet and really look at the organization from a strategic level and where we’re going and not get caught down in the weeds too much. At the moment, I’m visiting our project here in Kenya for our Lead Ranger, which is training of indigenous leaders from leading organizations both in the public and private sector, so they go out and become their own instructors within their own organizations. So that’s one of two main projects we do, the other one being Akashinga, which is large landscape management, deploying women as the primary method of law enforcement and community development. And I lecture for National Geographic. So in a normal world, when travel is happening, I’m usually doing one or two tours a year for Nat Geo, also doing our own public speaking our own fundraising, probably spend up to three months a year in the States, a month, a year in Europe, a month in Australia, where I’m from, and all of that’s going to sh*t at the moment. So yeah, I’m here in Africa. I suppose the only routine I keep these days, my two weapons of choice, a steering wheel and a keyboard, which is what my life has become these days. So there’s a lot of admin and a lot of correspondence, but I don’t hold too fast to routine, which may sound horrifying to some people out there who run a very regimented organization, but as a CEO, this is what works for me.

Ana Bradley: Yeah, absolutely. I think right now, a lot of people can find comfort in that you also don’t have a routine because I think most people’s routines have been thrown out the window with COVID. Everything’s changed, right? I’m curious about establishing what the world of poaching looks like now and if it’s changed, since the lockdowns and since people became more aware of trafficking animals and things like that.

Damien Mander: So the illegal trafficking of wildlife is the fourth largest criminal industry in the world behind drugs, guns, and human trafficking. So at a time when civilization has been brought to its knees by a small scaly anteater, I don’t think there’s ever been a stronger message in history, that the protection of the natural world is what binds us together and our future as a civilization is dependent on our willingness to preserve biodiversity. So, I’m optimistic at the heart of this situation is the better the outcome or the change will be on the other side of COVID. We have definitely seen an upturn in various forms of poaching, one of them being bushmeat, people poaching for food, but also dealing a lot with the sale of elephant ivory stockpiles that our teams in our investigation units have been dealing with. So yeah, there’s definitely an increased amount of pressure that’s been put on on these wilderness areas. And also, you couple that with a reduction in tourism, you know, almost complete cessation of tourism. Which is a large funder of conservation activities. So, yeah, look, it’s a tough time for us. You know, we had to shift our entire strategies of how we raise funds, not being able to get on a plane anymore and go sit down and have a face-to-face conversation or give the lectures, you know forces you to change. And I think, what was 2020 was a tough year, it actually made us stronger as an organization.

Ana Bradley: Last week, there was a UN-backed report. I don’t know if you’ve seen it from Chatham House. And they were talking very clearly about how plant-based diets are crucial to saving global wildlife. And I’m curious, you draw that connection, your group of people, they’re all plant-based, they have a plant-based operation, you draw that relationship really clearly between agriculture, plant-based living, and wildlife. If you could talk a little bit about that.

Damien Mander: There’s two types of conservationists, there’s vegans and those that don’t want to take their work home. Pretty much. I got involved with conservation or grew my conservation interest, through a love for nature and the environment and animals. And the meat industry is responsible for the destruction of more wilderness here than anything else on the planet, either through a place to put animals or to grow food for animals. And then responsible for the death of 100 billion animals a year. So whether you’re in it for the conservation side or the animal side, or both, the easiest way to protect both of those things, is just stopping putting the animals in your mouth. And, you know, we carry that through into our operations. We’ve got 240 staff in Zimbabwe alone, a group of women doing one of the toughest jobs in one of the most remote and harshest locations, the toughest places on the planet, and they’re thriving, and they’re doing it on a plant-based diet. So if they can do it out there and do the job that they’re doing, the way they do it, then I don’t think there’s any excuse for anyone to at least give it a shot.

Ana Bradley: For sure. I mean, one of the things about your story in your backstory. You had a series of moments and a series of encounters with wild animals, you know, suffering and in pain, and you talk about the bull elephant that you saw, in particular, who had been poached. A lot of people haven’t confronted death or confronted this type of visual, of such a massive animal in front of them suffering like this. How would you think that the average person could, would be able to connect animals living like wild animals or farmed animals and actually start to question them as food, or start to question what they regard as food?

Damien Mander: Start Googling, hey? There was a number of talks and videos, in particular Earthlings. Philip Poland’s talk, Gary Yourofsky talk, you know, it’s not just visuals, it’s information. And when we become armed with information to the bullsh*t excuses, we create for ourselves to sit around convenience has become harder and harder to carry on with. And, you know, that was it for me. You know, we spent three, four years walking around the bush protecting one group of animals and coming and throwing another group on the fire, and you can realize that we all share, we’ll share one thing in common. And that is the capacity to suffer. And the only difference in the capacity to start to suffer between species is the difference we create in our own minds. And the bullsh*t excuses that we build around that to help us sleep at night. And, you know, one of the things I suppose about me, I will say is, it’s, you know, I answer to no one other than myself. And, you know, when it comes to conscious decisions, there’s only so much that I could bullsh*t myself with and eventually, the truth is accumulative. And I couldn’t put up with what I was telling myself anymore for the simple fact that I like the taste of something. I did like the taste of something. So yeah, it isn’t, there’s enough stuff out there. I mean, get educated, I suppose. You know, I can understand people living in food deserts and people who come from you know, various demographics who don’t have access to a lot of choices, but what you know, what really grinds my axes, when you see people that are involved with conservation, you know, particularly on a scientific level, or people that are, you know, in academia and well-educated people that just put their head in the sand and they want to compartmentalize this part of their life and not acknowledge something that’s not only very straightforward but very well documented.

Ana Bradley: Yeah, for sure. I mean, you see people who are vegan and climate scientists, for example, who go to conferences where it’s just a roomful of climate scientists and everybody’s being served meat. And there’s not even a plant-based or vegan option.

Damien Mander: I pretty much refuse to go to those things these days. I watched a guy on stage get up at the What was it? It was a summit in New York giving this passionate, passionate plea about a breed of dolphin going extinct off the coast of California. And, you know, saying “There’s only X amount of these things left.” And, you know, he’s crying and all this was very emotional, actually. And then, you know, our buddy sticks his hand out, he goes out to eat seafood. And the guy’s like, “Yeah, yeah, I do, why?” you know, we’ve got to stop separating what’s convenient and start pairing it up with hard facts and the truth and take action. As individuals, you know, the biggest mistake I think we can make is to think that someone else is going to do it, or their individual efforts are not going to add up to something because they do, they have to, it’s the only thing we’ve got.

Ana Bradley: Well said. You mentioned Google there as well, that was music to my ears because at Sentient Media we do a lot of work to make sure our movements’ message is visible. And we work with writers to try and get articles placed in non-vegan mainstream outlets, etc, to try and get the message out there. But we know that reporting on wild animals and wild animal lives is much more appealing than reporting on farmed animal lives. Do you usually get like the opportunity to tie your work back to farmed animals and speciesism? When you’re talking to more mainstream outlets?

Damien Mander: Well, I have to, it’s all connected. I mean, there are areas that we have been buying back, you know, we now have long-term leases on eight different former trophy hunting areas that would otherwise have been turned into agricultural areas, to graze cattle. Also, the less people eating bushmeat the less animals being killed. The less people or the more people in the communities that we can convince to rely more on a plant-based diet, the less health issues we have to deal with in those communities. And in a lot of cases, social responsibility falls on the shoulders of conservationists, because there’s no other option. I mean, just in the last week alone, a few days ago we’ve been dealing with a young girl, with burns to 30 percent of the body from boiling water. Another young boy has been crawling since he was born because he was paralyzed from the knees down. So he’s got a wheelchair, you know, but it’s not just those that have health issues. We’re talking about you know, when someone’s having a heart attack or someone’s got diabetes, you know, there’s nothing in the clinics that falls back on us. So for us to try and encourage healthier living and plant-based lifestyle in countries and areas where getting access to medical help is very difficult. Prevention is the best cure.

Ana Bradley: Yeah, I’ve spent some time in West Africa. and there’s a diabetes epidemic in places like the Gambia and Ghana. 

Damien Mander: Yeah. And across southern and East Africa. You know, we’ve got various projects or instructors that have been trained or deployed. The majority of Akashinga’s focus is in Zimbabwe at the moment with an expansion towards the coastline happening in maritime coastal conservation. But yeah, it seems so simple. We have a program called ‘Back to Black Roots’, which is it’s a four-stage program, first teaching our staff from an environmental, ethical, and nutritional standpoint about why a plant-based diet matters. Teaching them how to grow their own food, prepare their own food, then teaching their families, teaching the communities, then stage four is building ambassadors. So that program is going great. Most of our staff maintain a plant-based diet away from work when they’re at home. Not all of them do. But when we’re working with a plant-based organization, we have plant-based policy. Yeah, we literally just won’t spend money on animal products.

Ana Bradley: Yeah. We’re talking about environmentalists and you know, climate scientists, having this kind of inability to draw the connections, but at the same time, you bridge a lot of gaps in your own story and in the work that you’re doing. And I think for a lot of environmentalists or animal lovers perhaps, they are kind of painted as more peace-loving and anti-military, whereas you bring this kind of connection of military solutions to these environmental problems.

Damien Mander: Yeah, look, don’t be mistaken that and we very much started off that way, because that’s all I knew, you know, coming from Iraq, and my background, Special Operations, working with exclusively all-male units and very successful at what we did. We literally went out looking for bad guys and stopped them from doing what they were doing. And then, we sort of realized we’re on a continent, that’s going to have 2 billion people by 2040. And ultimately, building bigger fences and buying more guns is only going to go so far, if you have any sustained long-term offensive against a local population that’s going to, you know, continue to outnumber you. We wanted to look at things differently. And I used to start my lectures by saying that what we’re doing is not the answer. It’s not the answer, think of us as like a paramedic trying to get this casualty to the operating tables, we need to come up with a better solution. And we don’t know who’s going to have a better solution. But we do need one. And for us that that solution came with integrating women into what is a largely male-dominated industry where women are outnumbered by 100, to one on the front lines, unable to gain the access to the experience, they need to rise up and fulfill management positions. While other industries get ahead because more women are getting into those leadership positions and on the boards and into CEO positions. Conservation was being left behind, and it was a number of different things that sort of fell into place for us. That made us eventually trial an all-female anti-poaching unit, which became the first armed all-female anti-poaching unit in the world. In Zimbabwe, 16 women we started off with, obviously we’ve got 240 staff now as part of the project, but it shifted just in the way that women conduct themselves. There’s a number of key factors that make the program different and make it successful, but it shifted our way of looking at conservation from being inside or reserve looking outwards, to being in the community looking in towards the reserve, we essentially shifted our strategy on conservation, we put women’s empowerment at the center of that strategy, it gives us the greatest traction, and community development and conservation are a kind of byproduct of that. That was largely driven by an overwhelming body of evidence telling us empowering women is the single greatest force for positive change in the world today.

Ana Bradley: Is that why you set something up yourself? Because when you went in 2009 or was it earlier than that when you went and joined a group that was already doing anti-poaching work, right? Is that why you decided to set up your own thing, rather than joining forces with what was already there?

Damien Mander: There’s a number of reasons. I thought I could do things better, I was being restricted in how I was going about my business. I was spending all my own money, so I needed to create a structure. You know, I eventually did spend all my own money, but through my own structure. But, I needed to create a body that would have some sort of sustainability. Also being a foreigner over here, it’s very hard to get a work permit. So a certain level of investment to be able to get that, that work permit and have some permanency here. So there were a bunch of factors. And yeah, absolutely no regrets. I’m glad I started. I started when I was 29. So at 41 now I’ve made some monumental f*ck ups. And I seem to have quite a lot of them out of the way and have refined what we do to these two key programs Lead Ranger here, based out of Kenya, and now Zimbabwe as well. With Lead Ranger, a new training facility being built down there. And then, of course, Akashinga, helping protect at the moment, over one and a half million acres of African wilderness. We’re on target with eight different nature preserves, we’re on target, to have hopefully 20 former trophy hunting preserves and 1000 women within the next five years.

Ana Bradley: That’s just incredible work. It’s really great to hear. I’ve been following your story throughout and each time you say something on one podcast or one interview the next year, I’m listening, and you’re actually doing it or achieving it, it’s amazing. I’m curious about how much you must have learned about the process and what happens behind the scenes with poaching. How does the demand come, you know, do they target small communities to find people to do the poaching and then the export. What does the actual process look like?

Damien Mander: Yeah, that’s happening. But you gotta look at poaching as two different things, one is commercial, that’s usually your ivory, your tusks, your skins, bushmeat not on a commercial level, and then subsistence poaching, and that’s people poaching to put food on the table. So I mean, that’s sort of more ad hoc. Commercial is much more structured. And in the case of ivory and horn, is a commodity within organized crime syndicates alongside other commodities. And, you know, so that comes from both a demand-side and a supply-side. So you’re like people that will be out killing and then trying to feed that into the market. And then you’ll have people that are placing orders, and those orders going into syndicates, that specialize in poaching. So yeah, and we invest a lot into investigation work. I think, last year alone, we had about 260 arrests with a conviction rate of over 86 percent.

Ana Bradley: So are you finding that the people who are actually profiting from it are within the countries you’re working in Africa? Or are they the ones who are selling it out in Southeast Asia?

Damien Mander: So it’s like drugs, you know, there’s a profit margin at each level of sale, you know, as it moves through the supply chain. And obviously, the higher it goes, the more it fetches. You know, our focus is internal, within Africa. Obviously, we get information relating to transnational crime, and there’s organizations such as Interpol that we pass information on to.

Ana Bradley: I’m curious about your levels of optimism for the future when it comes to stamping out poaching and the future of what it looks like in Africa.

Damien Mander: I’ve had my two years of fatalist attitude of like, f*ck, where are we f*cking going, what’s going on? And that was a long time ago. So yeah, look, we all sleep at night, knowing the situation could be much worse if we weren’t doing what we’re doing. And I think that goes beyond conservation. And anyone that’s dealing with a social issue or animal issue. Yeah, we can’t change the world for everyone. But we can change the world for a lot of different species and a lot of different individuals. And I want to be able to sit back when I’ve got a little bit more grey hair and a rocking chair there on the front verandah and just say I helped lead a team that played a part in holding on to as much of the natural world as possible, and the animals that are in that world. And, you know, who knows what the future looks like. But I know that what we’re doing is working, I know that the areas we protect have homed billions of different little species, you know there’s lizards, snakes, birds, fish, trees, insects, elephants, rhinos, giraffes, all that sort of stuff. They’re unaware of what’s going on around them in the war that rages. But while there is a price on their head, there will be a job to be done. And I suppose that’s what inspires me not just for people involved with the conservation movement, but with all our animal and environmental movements, the job is never going to finish. But it doesn’t mean that we slow down and relax. We just keep going.

Ana Bradley: Yeah, damn straight. Well said. It’s been great hearing about what you’ve been doing and you achieved this massive goal in December of raising one million dollars. What’s next?

Damien Mander: So yeah, we are currently training 110 women. So getting them ready, and the logistics of doing that, so we had to build a training facility, we put 15 instructors through that facility. We are scaling essentially a small army of women that will go out and protect millions and millions of acres. So you know, there’s a big machine that is underneath that, that makes that happen. So that requires funding and it’s a global community of supporters that we have that made that a reality. What next? So scaling to a new landscape, so we don’t look at parks in isolation, we look at groups of parks across the larger landscape edge reopening traditional corridors and traditional migration routes. And that’s what we’ve been doing across the Zambezi Valley very successfully, as well as our investigations work across the entire country to help break down those, those syndicates, and then as we moving into our next landscape now, which is also going to be another significant investment, and then probably within five years of being to a third landscape. And each one of those landscapes may have up to, you know, essentially a dozen to 15 different reserves, or natural reserves or parks that make up the jigsaw puzzle.

Ana Bradley: Not a lot then. 

Damien Mander: Yeah, but people that are out there, you know, running your own organization or doing your own activism. You know, it literally took us seven years to figure out what we do. You know, and that’s a lot of trial and error, and trying is trying that. And then 2017, when we got our Lead Ranger program here, up off the ground, train the trainer, building instructors to go out and train rangers within their own organizations with currently training 44 instructors that oversee 1,100 Rangers and 14 million acres of African wilderness that, you know, if that and expanding our mission here is all I did for the rest of my life. You know, I’d be proud of those achievements.

Ana Bradley: Absolutely. You spent so much of your time in the water, right? Like you were doing it from such a young age, you were out diving and out collecting things from the sea. So, do you have any ambition to do anything with marine life as well?

Damien Mander: It’s happening right now, the proposals are being finalized. The lawyers are doing the registrations, speaking with multiple government departments. So yeah, we’re looking at an area, essentially one million acres on land 70 kilometers of coastline. And an opportunity to be working in one of the most biodiverse marine areas on the planet.

Ana Bradley: Wow, that’s great. Is there anything that you’d like to leave to leave the viewers with? Obviously, go watch the National Geographic documentary and the Game Changers.

Damien Mander: If people want to learn more about the organization, I’m speaking to the converted here, I suppose with most people, but if I could say one thing it’s keep having conversations, keep getting better at them. Now, a lot of the time, it feels like you’re talking to a brick wall and beating your head against it, when you’re trying to get your message across. But it took me a long time for the truth to get through. But the truth is accumulative. And once the shutters come up, and then they never go down again. So don’t give up.

Ana Bradley: Yeah, absolutely. That’s great. And finally, we really want to talk to more people who are making an impact. Tanya tagged you. I’m wondering who you’d like to tag.

Damien Mander: I would like to nominate my mentor, a chap called Philip Wollen, based out of Australia. Winner of the Order of Australia medal has sponsored hundreds of charities, both animal and humanitarian, over the years, owned and funded Kindness House, which was a free home for hundreds of animal and environmental charities over a few decades. He is definitely someone that has given more than most people I can imagine on this planet, towards animals and humanity.

Ana Bradley: That’s awesome. Well, Philip, we’re coming for you. Thank you so much, Damien, for all of your insight and for taking time out of your day to speak to us.

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