We all come to forks in the road. What matters is what we do when we reach them.
Damien Mander has worked in the navy, toured Iraq 12 times as a private military contractor and travelled the world, but the biggest journey he has taken is inside himself. After travelling to Africa and witnessing the effects of poaching, Damien decided he couldn’t return to his previous life. He took a different path, one which led him to setting up and running the International Anti-Poaching Foundation (IAPF).
I was intrigued to find out why Damien chose a difficult route. What I found was a man disarmingly honest about his life choices, his motivations for change and his journey from mercenary to a vegan animal activist.
I’ve got salt water running through my veins. I grew up initially in the Northern Beaches in NSW. Dad ran the Mona Vale Hotel so I lived there for the first nine years of my life, then we moved down to the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria. We were always on the beach. I used to get up early and ride my bike down to the pier. I’d go free diving and collect all the fishing lures and the squid jigs that had been lost overnight by the fishermen and sell them back to them. I started diving off piers when I was 13. I’d be down there rain, hail or shine trying to make a dollar. I used the money to pay for my own scuba diving equipment and got right into scuba diving, which gave me the ambition to join the navy as a clearance diver.
Until I started doing what I’m doing now, I was a selfish person. I didn’t join the military to serve my country, I joined the military because it was a challenging job. I was also very self-conscious of image growing up. I don’t know why, just a testosterone fuelled teenager always interested in trying to impress other people. It was the same when I went across from the navy to the army to special operations. It wasn’t because I wanted to be part of a national response team to terrorists on home soil, it was because it was the next challenge, and again it was about me and nothing else. I suppose I was trying to create this image of being a touch guy, being a person in control, being a person who is not scared of anything. I went to Africa with the same mindset.
When I saw what the rangers in Southern Africa had to go through and realised I was trying to have an adventure on the back of their hard work and dedication, that was probably the lowest point in my life. I went over there to spend six months running around in the bush doing something I thought would be cool. I saw rangers who were living away from their families for up to 11 months of the year for a minimal salary, risking their lives every day to protect animals. I don’t know why, but seeing what happens to these animals affected me in a way that was worse than what I’d experienced in Iraq.
I called bullshit on myself: “You are full-of-shit as a person, everything you do is about yourself and nothing else,” and put my money where my moral mouth is. I decided to give up a comfortable life of travel and holidays. I didn’t have to work again for the foreseeable future. I had money and a property portfolio and a certain skillset that is unfortunately required to look after animals. So I was left with a choice, “Do I turn my back on this? Or am I actually going to do something about it?”
After what I’d been through in Iraq and my time in Africa I realised what real courage is and that is being honest with yourself. Every person has their own switch, for me it was seeing what was going on over there and acknowledging the truth. That’s not just in regard to setting up the IAPF, but also in terms of my veganism and the way I choose to speak out on behalf of all animals. We have sub-categorised animals into sexy ones and ones that are convenient for us to ignore. The suffering of a rhino is no different to the suffering of a cow, the only difference is the difference we allow ourselves to accept in our own minds because it’s more convenient for our conscience. There’s no ethical way to kill something that doesn’t want to die. If people want to eat meat, then they need to to understand the suffering that animal has been through to reach your dinner table.
There are tens of thousands of animals in reserves that we look after, but it’s not just about protecting elephant and rhino, but everything those animals represent. We train local people, make sure they are well equipped to go out and risk their lives and give them a better chance of survival. I am now feel hopeful for the future. As our organisation has grown and the success we are having with our projects, that feeling of despair, has drifted away. Thanks to the support of our donors around the world, we are seeing very positive results on the front lines.
I want to be part of the last generation that has a negative impact on earth. I don’t know what our generation is going to have on our headstone, but I want to continue to be part of something that is positive. For me, helping animals and protecting nature is the greatest opportunity I’ve had.
Visit International Anti Poaching Foundation for more information.
© Matilda Bowra 2016