By Jamie Joseph
This week savingthewild.com is celebrating World Ranger Day on 31 July and the exceptional work the International Anti-Poaching Foundation is doing to save our wildlife in Africa. We also ask the hard questions – It’s a war out there, so why are the rangers so lesser equipped compared to the global syndicates they’re going up against?
About 15 months ago I saw Damien Mander step up to the TEDxSydney stage with a sense of purpose and determination that left the packed theatre unnervingly challenged. His talk has been described as “provocatively jarring” and “a wakeup call to arms that should be viewed by all human beings”.
Damien Mander is a former Australian Royal Navy Clearance Diver and Special Operations military sniper turned anti-poaching crusader. He used his life savings and liquidated his investments and assets to fund the start-up and running costs of the International Anti Poaching Foundation (IAPF) – an organisation dedicated to the protection of elephants and rhinos in some of Africa’s most volatile poaching regions.
Sitting in the Sydney Opera House that day, even while the TED community around me were still applauding, I knew my life would be forever altered. In that moment I knew I would be returning to my African homeland.
I was born in Zimbabwe and grew up in South Africa, and I moved to New Zealand in 2009. I had lost touch with my African roots, unconscious of just how bad the poaching crisis had become –an elephant killed every 15 minutes, a rhino every nine hours – and suddenly I was wide awake. That evening I introduced myself to Damien, and my work as a writer and an environmental activist, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Starting in October, I will be hosted by IAPF on the frontline, spending 30 days across various poaching hot spots in Africa, writing “stories from the trenches” – on location, every day. The objective is to showcase the brave work of the rangers, and to educate and inspire global citizens to take action in their home country – because everyone can do something to save our iconic species from extinction.
The war on poaching is pushing endangered species toward extinction, fuelling corruption and conflict, and putting lives and livelihoods at risk. Damien does not mince his words when it comes to facing facts.
“If under any other scenario, armed units were to cross international borders and violently take out high profile targets, it would be a front-page incident or act of terrorism,” says Damien. “Yet this environmental terrorism happens daily in the poaching of high target species in many parts of Africa, and we sit here struggling to justify to the international community that rangers need the same access to training and equipment as our soldiers do.”
I am a firm believer that we are never going to win this war on poaching unless we get the demand countries on side, and even on a shoestring budget, WildAid is doing a sterling job in the race for new Chinese thinking. But demand reduction will take years, and a lot of political will, and in the meantime Africa’s wild is haemorrhaging.
It is no exaggeration that in some parts of Africa rangers aren’t even paid, and they’re going up against AK47s with stun guns. However Damien has said there has been a dramatic change in attitude and confidence after rangers have been given access to proper training and equipment.
Unfortunately, much of the equipment desperately needed to protect what wildlife we have left is collecting dust in military warehouses, while the conservation industry struggles along, trying to replicate technology that was superseded decades ago.
“A while back we tested smaller drones which everyone else was working on, and quickly identified that they actually don’t have a great capacity for conservation,” explains Damien. “You need much larger drones flying, which can carry a payload capable of sending back stabilized imagery to ground teams that can utilize and respond to real-time intelligence. This is a very important tool in the box, but it is not a cure. Drones saved human lives when I was in the military. Why can’t drones and other technology reserved for military or law enforcement be easily applied in the protection of our natural heritage?”
Where is all the equipment coming out of Iraq and Afghanistan going? There is an extensive manifest of equipment; it would be great if some of that stock went to conservation!
“Too many wildlife rangers are running around in rags while the military are cutting nearly new uniforms in half to decommission them,” adds Damien. “And just another example, sometimes when the military upgrades their night vision, the previous models are destroyed. ”
Imagine if the military started handing down their leftovers. This would be a game changer for the poaching crisis. So why is this not happening already?
“We don’t know,” says Damien. “We ask, and it just goes around in circles. It’s incredibly frustrating, especially since these same components are being employed by criminal syndicates to destroy our natural world.”
Up skilled and properly equipped rangers provide not only a major deterrent to poachers, but they are often able to neutralise situations without having to resort to escalating violence, in the end preserving human lives as well as wildlife. Killing subsistence poachers is never going to solve the real problems, because there will always be another living in poverty that is willing to risk his life to feed his family. Essentially all it does is devastate the local families and turn them against the good fight. What will make a real difference is smart intelligence, and a trail to the King Pins.
“We have subsistence poachers in Victoria Falls that have been rehabilitated to become passionate rangers,” says Damien. “And in other situations we’ve managed to get to the poachers before they’d made a kill. The most notable sentencing we’ve had is a collective 37.5 years in Zimbabwe for rhino poachers, and we got them on firearms charges before a shot was fired.”
We live in unprecedented times, and we all need to dig deep for solutions in this battlefield of poverty and greed, supply and demand. Eventually we’re all going to have to decide how much sin we can live with.