||30 September 2012 07:00
Chantal Rutter Dros
|Show: ||Carte Blanche|
In 2003 Damien Mander completed his first tour of duty in Iraq.
He was to do eleven more such tours, each one lasting between six weeks and three months.
Damien was training local policemen in Baghdad - before giving it up in 2008. Armed with a thirst for adventure, he made his way to southern Africa and Zimbabwe, where he started working with an anti-poaching unit. It was an experience that would change his life.
Damien Mander (International Anti-Poaching Foundation): "We came across an elephant with its face cut away. And I called my parents - who had power of attorney over my real estate in Australia - and liquidated everything I'd earned... worked for in Iraq. I had a property portfolio of eight houses and six of those went. It was the first day of the rest of my life."
Damien was still learning about the conservation world, but with a vision now firmly in his mind, he used that money to start the International Anti-Poaching Foundation in Victoria Falls.
Damien: "I went from having a pair of boots and a backpack. We built a small training academy and we train rangers for free. That's how we started off...with the mandates now grown, we've got some big plans. You know, being in a place like Iraq for that long gives you a pretty shitty insight into what humanity is like. And you see the innocence of animals and our wildlife and the struggle that the environment is facing and, you know, you've got to do something."
Chantal Rutter Dros (Carte Blanche presenter): "What distinguishes Damien's efforts is that he is an outsider; he comes from a different world. And this is what allows him to look at rhino poaching with fresh eyes."
The skills he had honed in Iraq - training and working with people - were being put to good use in a different kind of war: the fight to save Africa's rhinos from extinction. He quickly zoned in on local communities and where they fit in the complex conservation jigsaw puzzle.
Damien: "We're going to be doing a community scout programme. It's where we take some of the younger people in the community and teach them how to work with the animals, the problem animals... how to get rid of the lions, how to get rid of the elephants, without having to shoot them."
An outreach to the local communities in the Victoria Falls area was having good results.
While Damien didn't lose one rhino on the reserve his teams patrolled in Zimbabwe, the neighbouring property had over 70 poached. He says it was logical to take his methods to South Africa... today home to most of the world's rhino. And while at least one thousand rhino will likely be born in the Kruger Park this year, almost 400 have already been poached.
So this former sniper and navy diver from Sydney, Australia set about establishing a branch of the foundation just outside Hoedspruit - a wildlife hub bordering the Kruger Park.
Here he joined forces with a former SADF anti-poaching instructor. JC Strauss is a veteran in the industry.
JC Strauss (International Anti-Poaching Foundation): "I think his commitment to come from abroad into Africa to do something just triggered me. And I decided I'm not going to stand back and let the Australian come to South Africa and do all the work alone."
JC runs one of 20 anti-poaching companies in the greater Hoedspruit area. A controversial figure in a competitive industry, JC says his bush experience is a good fit for Damien's modern warfare skills.
JC: "The combination of that... yes, it's going to be effective, because the poachers are using it... technology. They are using Google; they are using night-vision equipment; they are using sophisticated fire arms and silencers. So why can't we use it?"
Chantal: "Damien's experience in war-torn Iraq has shaped his attitude to tackling rhino poaching. He comes with a systematic approach to training and an understanding of modern wartime technology to aid conservation."
Damien and JC are speaking of professionalising an industry where crucial employees simply aren't paid enough.
JC: "The minimum wage for a security guide or for a field ranger is round about R2 900 per month. Most of them work 12-hour shifts; they work like 21 days on, seven days off, to protect very valuable assets..."
... small reward for working amongst the Big Five - and snakes and scorpions, plus the possibility of armed poachers.
Damien: "(To field ranger) His field of view is opening up. As soon as he can see the way down the river bed, you're also checking left and right."
JC: "When a guy's walking with an AK47 in the bush you can't go around with a big stick and hope to beat him. We have got to start pulling some tricks out of the box."
One of those tricks could be what Damien brought with him from Baghdad. An understanding of how modern wartime technology can be used for conservation.
Supported by some of his technical team, he demonstrated the drone [aerial video camera system] in a 17 000 hectare wildlife conservancy outside Hoedspruit.
Simon Beart (International Anti-poaching Foundation Volunteer): "He can fly it automat using the laptops, and manually using a normal IFC remote control. Now we're receiving our data through this hi-gain antenna here, which is going to increase our range quite dramatically."
Chantal: "Damien, what range does the drone cover?"
Damien: "The one we've got at the moment - and we're coming in at base level - is a 15km radius, which doesn't sound like much, but for an area like this it's suitable."
Most poaching operations occur at night - when the earth is cool. The thermal imaging camera in the drone easily sorts warm-blooded creatures from the bush.
Damien: "What we're going to move to after this... the drone has a range of 400 miles. It's a bigger drone, more expensive, but these are the sort of things we need to get into conservation."
Chantal: "What happens when a poacher is spotted?"
Damien: "The drone will actually lock onto the target and hold that target for us, and guide ground teams into that position. And we can deal with the threat that way."
Protecting the rhino is one thing, but Damien felt he had to acquaint himself with the source of the demand - Vietnam.
Damien: "So here we are in Saigon's Chinatown and we're just in one of the stores here and already we see bear-bile ducts, also seahorse..."
In Saigon Damien met former South African, Stan Gunn, CEO of Vietnam's largest media company. A man with a soft spot for rhino, he says while trading in rhino horn is illegal in Vietnam, it's both freely available and an accepted status symbol."
Stan Gunn (CEO Sunflower Media Vietnam): "If you can buy some rhino horn powder for your friends at some party or in some nightclub that shows you're rich and therefore your status in society goes up. But it's quite common and I've been to at least two or three private homes where I've seen rhino horn available and it's been offered to me."
Chantal: "How was it offered to you?"
Stan: "It's basically passed around and you'd snort it like you would, I guess, high drugs like cocaine or something like that."
It's been suggested in South Africa that a media disinformation campaign aimed at users in Vietnam could be the answer. Stan says local culture is resistant to such efforts.
Stan: "There have been many campaigns against illicit drugs in Vietnam - the illicit drug trade, it's increasing. I don't think any campaign that you try anywhere in Asia is going to work against rhino horn in particular."
Near the Cambodian border Damien learnt from a renowned local physician that rhino horn has a thousand-year history in Vietnam and appears in ancient scriptures of Chinese traditional medicine.
Damien: "You're basically trying to change someone's DNA and make-up. It's so ingrained and been around for thousands of years. The traditional healer I stayed with said it does cure fever. To them it works, they believe it works."
The demand for rhino horn has never been higher - despite years of international bans, no solution has been found.
Damien: "Unfortunately the romance of free-ranging rhinos... I just don't have enough faith in the human race to sustain that idea, and we need to look at logical solutions."
In his report on his visit to Vietnam - "Damned If You Do and Damned if You Don't" - Damien has joined the chorus of voices calling for the trade in rhino horn to be legalised.
Damien: "There've been previous instances, with bear bile, soft-shell tortoise and deer antler wine, and these are things that used to be hugely prized by Vietnamese. And once the market was flooded, the demand reduced, and with it the prices, and with supply... So it's something we hopefully think could work with rhino horn."
With well over 200 organisations on the "save the rhino" bandwagon, Damien Mander and his foundation are not alone.
Whether or not legalised trade would work is a moot point but, with conviction and a desire to shake up the industry, we're likely to hear a lot more from the Australian.
IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER:While every attempt has been made to ensure this transcript or summary is accurate, Carte Blanche or its agents cannot be held liable for any claims arising out of inaccuracies caused by human error or electronic fault. This transcript was typed from a transcription recording unit and not from an original script, so due to the possibility of mishearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, errors cannot be ruled out.