I have a bit of an on-again off-again relationship with running, although I always find myself coming back to it. I’m not a picky runner though. I enjoy short, powerful sprints as much as long, steady Sunday runs. One constant, however, is that I almost always listen to podcasts when I’m running, or even just walking around town. Political, comical, informative, historical - nearly all genres work for me. I love learning about topics I know little about, and raising awareness in those around me. One of my longtime listens is the Rich Roll Podcast, hosted by Rich Roll, an accomplished vegan ultra-endurance athlete, former attorney turned full-time wellness advocate and all-around good guy. Rich embarks on thorough, insightful and eye-opening interviews with guests from all different backgrounds. Athletes, CEOs, NGO-founders, addiction survivors, spiritual healers, war veterans - each guest has their own, unique and fascinating story to tell.
This past weekend I caught up on Episode 419 - An Interview with Damien Mander. Damien Mander, also known as the Vegan Sniper, is a former Australian Royal Navy Clearance Diver and Special Operations Military Sniper for the Tactical Assault Group East, who went on to serve 12 tours in Iraq as a private contractor where his tasks included training the local police force in Baghdad.
After leaving the military, Mander traveled to Africa where he came face to face with a pregnant wild buffalo that had been horrendously trapped and fatally injured by poachers. Shortly thereafter in 2009, he founded the International Anti-Poaching Foundation (IAPF), a community-driven anti-poaching conservation program that operates in southern and eastern Africa.
In 2017, after nearly a decade since the IAPF’s establishment, Damien decided to take an entirely new approach to anti-poaching and founded the Akashinga, the world’s first armed all-female group of wildlife rangers. While approximately 19% of the world’s wildlife rangers are women, Mander realised that they are typically confined to office jobs or positions as gate wardens. Women were rarely, if ever, seen on the frontline. The IAPF decided to carefully select and train 32 women, all of whom were either unemployed single mothers, abandoned wives, survivors of sexual and physical abuse, wives of poachers in prison, widows or orphans. The women received their training from Damien Mander himself, based on his vast, first-hand military experience. The Akashinga operate in the Phundundu Wildlife Park in the Lower Zambezi Valley in Zimbabwe, a former trophy hunting concession home to approximately 8000 elephants that continue to live in constant danger of being poached illegallyI
Mander highlights that empowering marginalised women from rural communities has had a huge positive effect not only socially but also economically. Women earning a salary in rural Africa invest up to 3 times more into their family than a man in a similar position. 62% of the operational costs of the Akashinga model go directly back to the local community. An estimated 80% of that is returned on a household level and directly into the hands of women, converting this conservation project into a profitable community project. These previously marginalised, ostracised and often abused women have become akin to local celebrities, inspiring young girls to fight for their own education and a chance to build a future for themselves.
The Akashinga model also challenges economic gain earned from trophy hunting which, across the African continent, encompasses a landmass larger than the size of France. Due to social pressure and the disappearance of large game populations as a consequence of trophy hunting, climate change and habitat loss, trophy hunting is rapidly declining and leaving many wilderness areas without sufficient income to incentivise conservation. As Mander explains in the podcast, many rural communities find it impossible to justify spending on nature conservation when they themselves have no way to put enough food on the table. The Akashinga model therefore also provides an alternative source of income to the local communities, all the while protecting their rich biodiversity and precious wildlife populations.
Fighting poachers in the bush is of course not a long-term solution to the issue at large. Despite fantastic gains made in recent years, such as the percentage of poachers entering Kruger National Park from Mozambique dropping by more than half since 2014 and the population of the critically endangered black rhino increasing by 13% since 2010, the work in the bush is essentially like trying to stop a clogged sink from overflowing without actually unclogging the sink itself. In order for elephants, rhinos or any wildlife to be protected in the long term, issues such as corruption in government, economic development in Africa and market demand in Asia must be addressed. Mander himself admits that arresting poachers in the bush may help single populations in the short-term, but it does not offer a viable long-term solution.
It’s not just elephants that are at threat, either. In the past decade, the average number of poached rhinos in South Africa alone increased from 17 to 1,000 individuals annually. The total South African rhino population is around 20.000 individuals, which means that at this rate extinction will occur before today’s 1st graders turn 30. Particularly in East Asia, rhino horns (which are actually made out of the same keratin as human finger nails) are believed to cure any kind of ailment and sell for an estimated 20.000USD per pound. Illegal trade has developed into an increasingly sophisticated and multi-layered organised crime network, complete with corrupted political leaders and military-style weaponry.
The Akashinga, however, are taking matters into their own hands how and where possible. For many women it is the first time they are earning a salary, something that has allowed them to leave abusive husbands and support themselves and their children. Mander also points out that since beginning the project in late 2017, the group have made 76 arrests without firing a single shot. Anti-poaching operations have previously been violent, resembling guerrilla warfare. The Akashinga’s work, on the other hand, is based on enquiring intelligence and making calculated arrests. According to Mander, 97% of the world’s crimes are solved via intelligence, so it’s a much more sensible approach to anti-poaching operations as well.
Damien Mander has high hopes for the Akashinga, aiming to see the model expanded and adopted by others to employ approximately 4,500 female wildlife rangers patrolling more than 250,000 sq km of former hunting blocks across Africa by 2030. The project has been met with plenty of criticism, many saying that a woman’s place is not in the bush “doing a man’s job” but at home with her children. Mander, however, says that the reserve is being patrolled better than ever before - precisely by women. In addition, he highlights that the model is very easily scalable, and there’s no reason it couldn’t be adopted in other reserves in similar situations.
Mander often sites an African saying that goes: “If you educate a man, you educate an individual. But if you educate a woman, you educate a nation.” Educated nations are exactly what both the world’s endangered animals species as well as many marginalised women living in rural communities need.
If you’ve made it this far, perhaps what you can do to help! An easy way to contribute to IAPF’s work is to make a donation on their homepage. As Damien Mander says: “No donation is too small, or too big.” You can also create your own fundraiser or organise an educational event (direct link currently not available). Even just spreading the world helps the movement along, so feel free to share this post or follow the IAPF or Damien Mander on social media. I also recommend checking out this super interesting read on Damien Mander written by Thayer Walker for bioGraphic.