Fighting for Nature’s Future with Damien Mander, IAPF – E3, S3

Welcome back. This is season three, episode three. So every now and again you hear a story that stops you in your tracks. And Damien Mander is one of those people. Damien is an environmentalist and founder and CEO of the International Anti Poaching Foundation. I first found him through his TED talk, Modern Warrior back in 2013 and his personal transformation from hunter, sniper to animal activist and vegan to the founding of the IAPF is so remarkable and so moving that I wanted to track him down and see where life had taken him since.

I’m so honoured to have him on PROTECT today and discuss his fight across wildlife and conservation. So a bit about Damien first, he was born in Australia and is now based in Zimbabwe, and is an Iraq War Veteran who served as a naval clearance diver and Special Operations sniper for the Australian Defence Force. In 2009, while travelling through Africa, he was inspired by the work of Rangers and the plight of wildlife. liquidating his life savings, the International Anti Poaching Foundation was established to be the last line of defence for nature. Over the past decade, the IAPF has scaled to train and support Rangers, which now help and protect over 20 million acres of African wilderness.

In 2017, Damien founded Akashinga, “Nature protected by women,” an all female anti-poaching unit. It’s already grown to over 240 employees with seven nature reserves in their portfolio. They are the only group of nature reserves in the world to be protected by women and their goal is to employ 1,000 women by 2025. Damien is also the Co-Founder of LEAD Ranger, an innovative and prestigious training programme in Kenya, whose clients include some of the most renowned conservation organisations in Southern and East Africa. He’s also the winner of the 2019 Winsome Constance Kindness gold medal, a prestigious international recognition for services to animals and humanity.

Damien was also featured in the newly released documentary, The Game Changers from six time Oscar winning director James Cameron, and has now released another documentary with James Cameron at National Geographic about his work with the women of Akashinga, The Brave Ones, which I highly recommend.

So today, we go back to where it all started for Damien and I specifically wanted to get the details on the women that are part of Akashinga, how it came to life and how you can fight with heart and empathy, sometimes better than with a gun and a wall, even initially, to Damien’s surprise. Now, today’s conversation has some really wonderful stories of saves and personal transformations but there is also some information on animal and human violence, ranger livelihood and sexual assault that some listeners may find distressing. But I hope you’ll still be able to join us and be part of this sometimes heartbreaking but many times inspiring conversation. I hope you enjoy the episode.

Hi, Damien, welcome to PROTECT. Thank you for joining us today.

Damien: Angela, thanks for having us mate, I very much appreciate it. G’day everyone.

Angela: It’s an honour to have you on. Now for those who may not know your backstory and how you founded the International Anti Poaching Foundation, could you give us a brief introduction, particularly around your personal transformation that saw you begin to connect with animals and want to protect them?

Damien: Elevator pitch, a former military, spent a bunch of time in Iraq, left Iraq, beginning of 2008, not knowing the what next, as we see a lot of issues with veterans and a lot of alcohol and drugs. And it’s you know, at the time termed a self deserved break and bit of a party holiday, which turned into a bit of a downward spiral and ended up in the beginning of 2009 in Africa, travelling around. I just came over really for a bit of a short term adventure. And then really seeing what the Rangers do over here, the hard work they do, the dedication they have and I would have classified myself as someone to be fairly self centred, self important up until then, you know, a military career and even Iraq. And even the party afterwards was trying to outdo what I’d done before in trying to gain recognition, probably more so not for myself, but from other people.

I suppose Rangers gave me a way to to see that there’s there’s more to life than running around looking for your next adventure or your next set of pictures for social media. There’s a giving angle, not a taking angle, and having come from working in within a $600 billion annual defence budget as part of a force that that helped flatten a country and a culture in Iraq, to seeing nature being destroyed on the other side of the world, and the people fighting for that having nothing compared to what we had in the military, when we were fighting for resources in the ground. These men and women were fighting for the future of civilization, of our planet of nature and that was a wake up call for me. And I don’t know if that was a process of age or experience, or just what I’d gone through in Iraq, and then subsequently, South America. I was just ready for the next evolution in my life but it was definitely Rangers and what they were doing, and what they were protecting, the animals that were being exploited, that made me want to do something different.

Now, October 2009, the International Anti Poaching Foundation was formed by liquidating, essentially, the assets that I’d made predominately through military and then of war. So, I know that that would be a tall building, if that was an elevator pitch. But that’s it.

Angela: Yes, brilliant. And I’ve watched your TED Talks. So could you please detail for us that moment where you saw that elephant that buffalo that triggered you?

Damien: Oh, there’s a couple of catalyst moments for me, and when I say catalyst, it’s not like I was, 180 degrees this way, and then, five minutes later, I was always on a different track in life, there was a lot of build up. And you know, we are, at any stage in our life, we are a product of our past. All the bits that we choose to acknowledge as the evolutionary components of who we are. You know, if we make a mistake, or choose to learn from that mistake, or if we see something and then choose to act upon what we’ve seen.

I mean, the two main incidents for me were the buffalo with being one of the most biggest and powerful animals definitely the most scariest on the continent here, and the one that you least want to come across, when in the bush seeing one of these powerful animals with her back leg caught in a wire snare, to the point where she’d ripped her pelvis apart trying to get out of this trap, that poachers lay trying to capture these animals.

And when we euthanised her, she gave birth to a stillborn calf, and as a person who had grown up hunting and having no love for nature, and very little respect for animals. And a position that I’m glad I was, I’m glad I was that person, because having come up completely opposite to that now I can speak to that person that I used to be. But being that person and seeing that buffalo, it did affect me in a way that I hadn’t been affected before. And not even in a way that that the horrors of Iraq can put you through or or prepare you for so that was the most basic, confusing and confronting moment for me. My feelings in regards to seeing that animal and what it went through.

And then of course, you know, seeing an elephant with its face cut off. You know, the animal the size of a truck killed for something you can hold him in one hand, not even for meat that people might be able to eat or sustenance, it was purely for for ivory and for greed. And I suppose just that frame, you’re looking at that animal with the whole animal intact except for a missing face. You know that frame there summarises I think to a large part of humanity, what we do what what was done to that elephant we’re doing to nature, and in a certain kind of way, cutting off our own noses too, despite our faces.

Angela: Yep, and from that you have founded something quite incredible. So tell us about the foundation, I’d love to know how much area you’re protecting, if you’ve got a ballpark on the animal populations there and how many people you have working on site.

Damien: I mean, we started off initially it was myself and a couple of board members together to sort of support but it was just me going out, walking into the bush each day where there was a Ranger team and training them. And we were a service provider, initially going out and giving Ranger training and mentoring them on the job. That was a two way street, they were getting training and at the same time, I was learning the culture and how to operate around dangerous animals in the African Bush, which is very different to the streets of Baghdad. And that sort of grew as an organisation. We ended up getting our own areas to not only live on and base ourselves from but to set up training facilities and train Rangers from other parks. And we just we just continue to grow from there, we widened our scope of work in terms of what we provide and move more into management of areas from the security standpoint, not necessarily the habitat.

Now the trees in the roads and that type of thing and the communities but with the security of areas and then working across multiple reserves and wider landscapes and then into other countries. And then it was around early 2017 – you know we’d come through quite an ark as an organisation and we’d grown and built up a reputation and a track record and whilst that may have been reasonably small in the context of a lot of the larger NGOs and charities that work in this space, we had a lot of impact for the resources that we had, you know, pound for pound we packed a punch.

It was becoming more and more evident that the job we were doing was not sustainable and I came into conservation at a time where it was becoming increasingly militarised. At the beginning of what we would later come to term the “Rhino Wars”. So they’re using a lot of a lot more military hardware, a lot more former soldiers getting involved. It sort of felt like the necessity because we’re seeing rhinos, who have a horn. A horn on a rhino can weigh 10, 20 kilos, and that can sell for up to 75,000 US dollars a kilogram on the streets in in Vietnam or China. So here you’ve got an animal that should essentially be locked up in a safe, running around the area the size of a small country, and you have armed units crossing international borders using heavy calibre rifles, automatic weapons to take these animals out. And that does require a certain response. And we provided that response and our organisation were very successful at that sort of shock action and going out, that militarised response. Drawing a line in the sand saying, “If you come across this line and into this area, there will be a reaction, we will be there waiting and when you try and leave this area with that horn, we will continue following you on foot through intelligence with helicopters with dogs until we find where that horn and that weapon is, and then you’re going to jail for a long time.” And we were very good at that.

And one project in particular along the South African Mozambique border and the Mozambique side of the border, protecting the eastern flank of at the time almost a third of the world’s remaining rhinoceros population and we helped drive a downturn of incursions of poachers into Kruger National Park from Mozambique from a total amount of poachers that were coming in from 75% of them were coming from Mozambique. By the time we finished that project and handed it back to the local stakeholders, that number had dropped to 30%. So as a significant decrease in the amount of poachers that were coming from that area that we were protecting, into the heart of the highest concentration of population of Rhino in the world.

There was a moment, a series of incidents where we’re having this ongoing conflict with the local population. At a time when the UN population division is telling us there’s going to be two billion people on the African continent by 2040. And it was it was an ongoing realisation that building bigger fences and protecting them with more guns was not going to be the long term solution to conservation in Africa, or in the world. We had to find a way to engage local communities and get them to a point where they were motivated to care about conservation.

You know, I spent a lot of time lecturing around the world and pre COVID, up to three months a year in America and I would start my lectures by saying, “Look, what we’re doing – don’t think of that as the answer, think of us as like a paramedic, we’re trying to get this situation to the operating table. So someone with a better solution can take over.” And the thing is, though there didn’t seem to be a better solution. There were programs that did engage local communities, but they always seem to be separated. Conservation communities were separated from one another, there was a fairly militarised action taking place in the reserve or the Conservancy. And then there was a subsequent action taking place from the same organisation to try and mend those relationships through community development programs, as opposed to them both working in tandem. And it is a very delicate line to walk to try and get those two key components, conservation and community working hand in hand. But that for us became the focal point. How do we get those two working together? Because spending over seven figures a year, and having a war with the local population is like trying to hold back the oceans tide with your bare hands. We can only hold a little bit back and only for a certain amount of time.

Angela: So, it was definitely a work in progress. Excellent. Now I feel like today, the world in general has much more empathy for animals. So is poaching still increasing? And does it still need so much attention? And what are they actually after beyond the ivory?

Damien: There’s two different types of poaching predominantly. One would be subsistence poaching – that’s poaching from meat, food on the table poaching for the pot. And that’s not necessarily something that we’re super targeted on in terms of going out and we don’t spend all day trying to stop that. We have gone very much from being a species focused organisation looking at the elephant and Rhino to being an ecosystem and eco regional- think of wide open natural landscapes. That’s what we’re trying to protect and in doing so we’re protecting all the biodiversity within that space. And that is essentially what needs to be protected.

We don’t need to go out and just specifically protect elephants or specifically protect pangolin or specifically protect a rhinoceros – we need to protect nature. And if we do that, then all those animals or those species are going to be protected. So bushmeat, poaching is a threat to that, particularly with these growing human populations. So, that is something we deal with.

Wood poaching is huge in Zimbabwe and one of the largest tobacco producers in the world. It takes three kilograms of wood to cure one kilogram of tobacco and tobacco companies do not provide to the rural growers, the coal that they would need to otherwise fire their kilns and cure that tobacco. So the easiest thing for them is to walk 20, 30 metres into a protected area and cut down the trees. I mean, if you’re going to cut down the trees, you might as well shoot the animals, because if animals don’t have trees to live amongst, then they’ve got nowhere to survive. So that, for us is a huge issue and I would say, dealing with the wood chopping is a far more burdensome task than the subsistence side – than the bushmeat.

So the other component is the commercial trade and that may be commercial bushmeat. Poaching might be rhino poaching, might be elephant poaching, poaching, for skins, poaching for animals such as a pangolin, that carries such a huge price tag on it. And then these depending on the animal and the body part that’s been poached will determine the market. Predominantly, you’re looking at Asia, Vietnam, China, Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong and Thailand. This is where majority of the ivory list is going – pangolin. Hong Kong is a huge essential trading place, or transit place for a lot of these different animals and their parts. Rhino – one we know a lot of that is going into Vietnam and from Vietnam up into China and then a lot of people feel that China is continuously that the global punching bag when it comes to degradation of nature, but being based here and seeing a lot of what goes on, you know, a lot of that focus has been well earned, unfortunately. So the Chinese have the power to be able to stop a lot of this trade that takes place and you know, particularly when it comes to ivory to completely shut off and take a zero tolerance stance to ivory trade, you know, a lot of this would be stopped.

Angela: It is a black market, though, isn’t it? None of this is legal?

Damien: Definitely from this side, it is a black market. But there is there is also a legitimate market, illegal market through the trophy hunting industry but that often provides a veil for the illegal market to operate behind. You provide a legal looking certificate for an illegal piece of ivory and all of a sudden, the shipment of that becomes legitimate and it can be sent overseas. So it is a very tedious industry to be dealing with. You’re talking about dealing with organised crime, where animal parts are just another currency alongside guns, drugs, human trafficking and counterfeit money. So it’s not like you’re just playing with small guys, you know, these are well-embedded organisations, they have a lot of power, both from a violent standpoint and a political standpoint – a lot of influence.

When I say you’re seeing an increasing amount of people involved with conservation and environmentalism around the world, whether it be on the ground, action, or activism, or journalism being killed or taken out, or having assassination attempts placed on them, you know, credit to all the people in the industry that keep fighting for what’s right. It is what is right and at a time at a time when civilisation has been brought to its knees as a direct result of the way we treat nature with millions of people and billions of people in lockdown, and trillions of dollars of deficit as we go into a global financial crisis, economic depression. If we just spent some of that money and time and effort invested into nature in the first place, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

But we are a species that likes to react rather than play it forward. And at the moment, we are definitely reacting. My only hope that the other side of what we’re going through now with COVID is at the heart of the situation is for us as a global community, the better the reaction and the response will be on the other side. And the realisation that we are not the main act, we are a small cog in a big engine and species have come and gone, they’ve done that for millions and billions of years. And the sooner we realise that we are as vulnerable as any other species on this planet or any other species that there has been in, in the history of of this planet, then maybe the quicker we’ll start to realise that we need to behave differently.

Angela: Definitely, I do think that pandemic brought us to a halt, and a realisation. Definitely in Australia, we’re seeing a lot more people interested in conservation, supporting NGOs, that kind of thing. So even though it’s been a devastating time, I think a good time for the environment if we act. So let’s talk about your team. I specifically want to ask you about your all female Ranger unit, Akashinga. I love that it’s given women an opportunity to work and provide and from what I’ve seen, it seems like they’re doing one of nature’s most toughest jobs. So how did that idea come about and how is it going?

Damien: So this program started with 16 women, we now have around 240 staff allocated to that. Protecting eight different reserves in an area of around 25 million acres at the moment – that area is actually much wider when you include the investigations work that we do and the footprint they have. But essentially, that’s the footprint and the amount of people that are doing it.

We started this program in 2017, just to try something different. That we had this increasingly militarised approach, but we were looking at other industries that we’re evolving through the inclusion of women, giving equal opportunities, getting more women on the boards of directors, getting more women in senior management, more women as CEOs. Like looking internally into the conservation industry, women, at least at ground level, were outnumbered at a ratio of around 100 to one.

But when I say operationally, they’re the people that are going out in the field and doing and patrolling and putting their lives on the line. Yes, there’s women that are in the field, but they generally stuck walking a fence line or stuck sitting on a gate or a checkpoint. But the thing is conservation is an operational environment and to be able to evolve into management positions, you need to have the experience behind you to be able to make key decisions once you’re in management. Because ultimately, if you make the wrong wrong decision, people die. So if women weren’t getting access to that information, that experience that they needed, very grassroots level within an organisation or an operation, then it stands to reason that they couldn’t genuinely evolve into management, and be able to perform at the best level that they could perform when put alongside males that may have gone through a much more experienced career path.

So we wanted to assess that and give it an opportunity and see what would happen if we put women into these on the ground positions. We looked at a number of other operations within conservation, where women were given certain roles, but not full roles, or full access to all the roles that were there. And, and a lot of what was being used for fundraising, you know, put a uniform on a woman and give her a weapon and take some pictures and raise the bucks. We wanted to get away from that. What we wanted to do was to understand if this idea was possible, and the only way we could do that was to do a selection.

So we did a selection in Zimbabwe. Initially, I think we had 87 women come down, we did pre-selection interviews, and reduced that number to I believe it was 36, then ran selection. And we chose 16 of those 36 to start the training program. And those women went on to form Akashinga which translates into “The Brave Ones”. And it’s very much shifted my perception on not only conservation, but law enforcement. You know, this week when we look at the Floyd case in the US and just the perception of law enforcement within community policing, and levels of violence that are used, or can be used by some people, I won’t say all people, some people in uniform and when I saw the way that the women operated, they seemed to operate with a different value system, it was about having a relationship as opposed to looking for someone that’s doing something wrong and and trying to arrest them for it.

Personally, having come from units that were all male, never worked with females and women weren’t welcome into the units that I work in Special Operations being this ultimate sort of boys club. My background is counterinsurgency warfare and our job was to look for a fight and to finish it, women seem to want to have a conversation with a problem before they blow it up or shoot it. And when you’re trying to have a relationship with a community of 10s of 1000s of people that live alongside an area that you’re trying to protect that relationship building and maintenance is far more important than biceps and bullets. That for us became, I suppose the secret ingredient to the success that we’ve had, is having these relationships as opposed to having this war, it’s helped to drive a massive downturn in our expenditure, which means we’ve got a lot more money to put into community projects, from water to health to roads, alternative livelihoods, individual healthcare cases that exists their education, and we’re currently doing scholarships for 120 children.

And one of the areas that we’re working in all of that had taken us outside-in approach working from the community in and as opposed to working from the reserve out. All of that has helped us be more successful at what we do across a wider area in spending less money with a far greater, long term vision. Our conservation seems to be motivated from the community and we did that by putting women’s empowerment at the centre of our strategy. It gives us the greatest traction in community development and conservation become the byproduct of happy, well-functioning communities.

The program and the model doesn’t please everyone. There’s still very small and isolated pockets of resistance from some men in the communities that feel as though there’s a women’s still doing a male’s job but the positive sentiment of what we’re doing is overwhelming. And women have very much become the bridge that conservation had to build back into communities. From an economic standpoint, it’s also been very successful for us and a donor that gives money to us that dollar is essentially spent three times first on women’s empowerment. Second on community development, and the most effective single dollar that can be spent on community development is through women’s empowerment. And that is through an overwhelming body of evidence that we draw that conclusion. And third, as that dollar was initially intended, conservation, we are a conservation organisation. We’re not necessarily a women’s empowerment organisation, we just found a better way to do business.

Angela: You certainly did. I think it’s incredible. And it certainly challenged the gender roles in their community, no doubt. Now, I’ve watched the official documentary plus some media coverage, and it looks pretty gritty. So I want to know what type of woman makes it into the team? And what does the day look like for her?

Damien: So when we started the program, I was working with an Aussie filmmaker, a good mate of mine, Adrian Stone, just documenting everything from sort of day one. He was actually there before we started the recruitment process and the both of us were chatting, this all happened sort of very quickly. It went from resistance in the local community, as “No, this is not going to work, this is a male’s job,” to being on the ground speaking face to face with the traditional leaders and the local council, explaining to them what it was we wanted to do. In that explanation, that we were given a window of opportunity and that window of opportunity was only three days to run this military-like selection process. At the time, when we were given the green light, we had to come up with the criteria of the people that we wanted to select and the criteria that we thought of. And for no other reason is a couple of Aussies you know brainstorming here, in terms of well, okay, if this program does take off, and this program provides jobs and we should be giving the jobs to the people that needed the most. And that’s where the criteria for the women was initially born. And they are all women that are survivors of serious sexual assault, domestic violence, AIDS, orphans, single mothers and abandoned wives, even to a lesser extent, at least in terms of being raised during the pre-interview process, but also to sex workers.

As we sat through the stories, listening to these women, they were accompanied by the village head, it’s called a sybok and all these stories were verified and it wasn’t just women coming along and fabricating stories to try and get a job, which has been the presumption of some people, all these stories were verified, and the fact they were verified and that we were sitting there listening to them was bloody heartbreaking to listen to. To think that this is the sort of life that these women in rural Africa in a very patriarchal society were subjected to, and they were ridiculed when they came to the selection. They were told to go home, to go back to the field to go back to the kitchen, to go back to the family. I mean, up to four years since the program started, everyone might not like the program, but they damn well respect it after more than 300 arrests that they’ve made and helping to drive an 80% downturn on elephant poaching across the middle lower Zambezi Valley region of Zimbabwe. It’s a tough job that they do. What we didn’t realise when we said that criteria is that we were getting the toughest. And you know, these are women that we thought we were going to put through hell during selection, without the realisation that they’d already been through hell, and they’d survive pretty much the worst that life could throw at them and anything that we thought we would put together because it looks hard, and the military was nothing compared to the life of a woman living in some of these rural areas.

So that for us is has come, you know, has brought a certain toughness or grittiness to the program. I mean, they also have a very, very soft, very tender side, our family side, and that is the side that relates to the community. The tough and the gritty side is the side that relates to dealing with poachers and a job they have to do in an area that that lost 1,000 elephants in the 16 years prior to this program starting. So 1,000 times teams of armed poachers came into this area willing to kill elephants or anyone standing in their way.

A day for these women. It consists of general patrolling and patrol can go from half a day to five days in length and what we would call an extended patrol, this reaction so quick reaction force that responds to incidents that are happening with medical teams, canine tracking teams. We have investigations teams that are working, and then there’s a whole machine that sits underneath the pointy end of the spear, the logistics, the education side of what we’re doing the training team, the fundraising team, it really is it’s a whole machine that’s pumping along here.

And as I said a program that started with 16 women as grown at 240 staff. We do employ a lot of males whose work are construction and roads and inside the communities but anything to do with law enforcement, 100 per cent of our Rangers and our scouts – scouts are unarmed Rangers who are working within the communities – they are all female. It’s a  very dynamic and fluid environment. One day, you may have a leopard caught in a snare that needs to be supervised in case it gets out and starts attacking people until you call a vet that can come in and dart and remove it and relocate it. The next day, you may have a car accident or conflict in the local community, and you’ve got a medical team responding. You may have tracks of poachers, you may have information of someone that’s just exited in an area with ivory from an elephant that’s been poached from another area. But if just use the area that you patrol as an exit point. You may have intelligence of a weapon that’s been stashed in a barn somewhere in a local community and that weapon has been used for elephant or Rhino poaching, you need to go and mobilise the police into a joint operation. There is no day that’s carved in stone, every day is different in every day brings a new set of challenges.

Angela: My goodness, it’s a world away from us. So that brings me on to my next question. Beyond the physicalness of the job. I want to ask, what about any anxiety that constant being “on”, being armed, being prepared? How do you manage that? How do you and the team manage that?

Damien: Very good question. I suppose it rolls into the backgrounds of these women and where they come from and personal accounting and team counselling. Group counselling has been something that we have done almost since day one, great to work with these women on what they’ve been through and the job of law enforcement. You know, it is a tough, stressful job. I mean, the model that we use the Rangers, we don’t employ any Rangers or scouts that come from further than 20 kilometres away of the boundary of the area we’re protecting, so they’re always close to home.

Damien: We have a rotation system, so they are spending far less time at work than a traditional Ranger. And far more time at home, they’re at home every month, for at least 10 days. Many of the Rangers that I’d worked with previously would spend up to 11 months a year away from their families and then travel home for sort of two to three weeks with anything up to four or five days, either way of that time being used for travel, just because of the distances that we’re moving. And we’ve broken that down. Not only because it’s the right thing to do not keep people away from home for so long. But because we are dealing with a different dynamic, we’re dealing a lot with mothers that have children. I mean, speaking as a father here, I know that children need their mothers, we don’t want to be driving a wedge in the family dynamic there. So it can be a thin line between providing that opportunity for women to rise up in this industry and keeping them away from from their families. And we don’t want to do that.

I mean, we think about ourselves on this program as a family. If one person has a problem, then we as an organisation and as a family and as a program, we take that problem on and we go and try and deal with it. And you know, an example may be Kelly, I mean when she joined us, Kelly had been raped to the age of 16. She had a daughter. Her daughter’s name is Yearn Cleopatra. When she joined us she hadn’t seen her daughter for two and a half years because in her particular culture if the mother can’t afford to look after the child it’s taken and sent to live with the parents of the Father. And Kelly joined us and just after the age of 18. She hadn’t had a job previously, she went through Ranger training, she came on and worked as a Ranger. She saved her money, she bought land and started building a house and around that time she came to us with this problem. The problem was she only hadn’t seen her child she couldn’t get access to see her child, she was being kept away from her. And we took this to court, and she won full custody of the child and at the time with full custody that she was able to bring her daughter back to the house that she’d built on the land that she’d purchased with her own money only a few kilometres from where she works as a Ranger. That is the sort of suppose extra miles that the program will go to give our staff the backing that they need in what can often be very tough and one direction or circumstances.

Angela: She’s still with you?

Damien: She certainly is.

Angela: Excellent. Okay, so what’s the future hold for the foundation? Do you think this is officially your life’s work?

Damien: Yep, I’m not going anywhere. This is our 13th year of operation. We are on target by around 2026 to have 1,000 staff, protecting 20 areas that were formerly trophy hunting areas that have been reclaimed or purchased in conjunction with local indigenous communities and managing those areas. These are areas that would otherwise be lost to human settlement or agriculture and these areas across wide wilderness landscapes that would become the missing pieces of the jigsaw puzzle that join all the national parks and Safari areas together. These are communal Land Trust, wilderness areas, with the traditional model being trophy hunting and as that industry dies for various reasons, we, the organisation are there to pick up the pieces and fill in those missing bits of the jigsaw.

So at the moment, we have one landscape that we have eight reserves in. And that landscape is one of the largest and most iconic on the African continent that is the Zambezi Valley. The second landscape will take us to the ocean and into maritime conservation, which is exciting for me. As much as I love Zimbabwe and living in a landlocked country, but I grew up with salt water running through my veins. So to be able to take on a maritime project, which also has a very large terrestrial footprint of over one and a half million acres, that’s going to be exciting – that’s in another country. I won’t go into too many details at the moment but the objective for us going forward is every five years to take on a new landscape. And each one of those landscapes will cost around between the three and four million dollar market a year to manage and protect and have all those staff out there deployed in the field.

But the other program we run is a program called Lead Ranger based out of Kenya. We just finished building the second training facility in Zimbabwe, and that focuses on indigenous leadership and capacity building. So we identify good leaders or leader people with good leadership potential and existing and well established organisations. And we teach them how to be better instructors or better teachers or better leaders, so that it makes learning an ongoing function within the workplace, as opposed to relying on external service providers.

If those were the only two things I did for the rest of my life, I couldn’t think of a better way to spend my time, I won’t say it’s been an easy 12, 13 years, it’s definitely been tough, you know, we’re operating on some of the toughest countries on the planet to work and we’re not only operating where we’re successful, we’re extremely successful in what we do. And, you know, we’ve cut our teeth, which stabilises an organisation, we’ve gained maturity, and we’ve built the foundations with an amazing management team, both in Africa and around the world to support the growth of these two programs.

That for me, is my life’s work. I mean, my position within the organisation is less operational these days more focusing on strategy, vision, and leading this, this team as a Chief Executive Officer, and then also the advocacy, the outreach side, also employed by National Geographic on the speaker’s bureau. So we are one of a few dozen speakers that travel the world and get to speak about nature and conservation. And that is an amazing opportunity, you know, which I really enjoy and obviously COVID has put the brakes on that for a while. I think my next talk start again, around this time in 2022.

Also, as you’re probably aware, I’m very outspoken in the animal rights world and activism side, and particularly in linking conservation and the veganism side together and how one should really be influencing the other a whole lot more. But this is still so much separation between the two. So yeah, you know, I’d like to continue playing a role in trying to bring those two together, because they are, they are very much linked with the meat industry being the greatest cause of deforestation on the planet. And the greatest cause of animal suffering and these are two things that are very much at the heart, we would think of the heart of anyone that is considering a career in conservation.

Angela: Yep, I completely agree. And some amazing plans there, Damien. So how can I and the listeners support you and the team?

Damien: I mean, it’s not just about supporting us. I mean, obviously, if people want to support us, they can through our website, International Anti Poaching Foundation. But it’s not just about putting your hands in your pocket and supporting the frontline operations, or hosting fundraisers back home, or seeing how you might be able to be involved with a specific skill set. But it’s about how we live our everyday lives and how we give back to nature and not take, I suppose that the important thing to remember is doing something good doesn’t give us a credit to do something bad. It’s not an endless resource. And if we want to continue having a good life, you know, ultimately, that’s what we all want. We all want to have a good life, we all want to be happy and have a good time. And it doesn’t matter what you’re doing, whether you’re a CEO, whether you work in conservation, whether you’re at school, whether you’re a parent, if you’re doing it well, you’re having a good time. And I think that’s what we all want.

The only disclaimer, the small print of that is don’t be an asshole along the way. Don’t destroy everything in your path and don’t have that good time at the detriment of the planet and other people. And I think if we just take that philosophy through in what we do, but we actually achieve a whole lot more of a nation by doing a whole lot less, you know, we don’t need to go out and have this consumer lifestyle and you know, trying to buy things that that make our lives better. The important things in life are not things, they’re actions, they’re relationships. You know, we can’t try and fix that through financial means. As much as we to operate on the funding that people give us. The most important thing people can do is to have an inward look at their own lifestyle and who they are and how they live and try and live in a better way. A way that’s better for nature, a way that’s better for animals, and ultimately, that’s going to be why it’s better for us as a human civilisation.

Angela: Yes, I had a recent guest, who gave me a mantra. So whatever you’re doing, “First do no harm.” And I think it’s a great way to start. So finally, Are you hopeful firstly, that we can end poaching and secondly, turn around this climate mess?

Damien: I think we are a species that responds very well, when we’ve been pushed far enough into a corner. I don’t know if we’ve been pushed far enough into a corner for us to be making significant changes on an individual, a country or a global basis just yet. But I think the ship is definitely starting to turn. And there’s more and more people that are becoming aware. And that’s because more and more people are becoming affected. I’m hopeful. I’ve had my couple of years of fatalist mindset of you know, where’s this all going? And what’s the point? I’m through that. I’ve got a very optimistic outlook on the future. And, you know, I believe that, over time, we will continue making positive changes that will need this to be much more positive place to live in. Look at it this way, if I thought it was a lost cause, I’d be down the pub, drinking my life away, you know, we’re out here fighting for what’s right. And, you know, that’s what we do every day, you know, because there’s a fight to be had and there’s a fight to be won and that’s my position.

Angela: That’s beautifully said Damien. Thank you. And we’re all part of that fight. So look, Damien, thank you for your time, for your work, for your dedication for your team. It’s been such a pleasure to host you today.

Damien: Ange thanks very much, mate. Thanks very much to all the listeners and again, yeah, our website if anyone wants to learn any more information on what we do, but yeah, thank you. Thank you again for having us and thanks, everyone, for listening and what you guys do for nature.

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