(TMU) - Australian combat veteran Damien Mander had a world of options before him after he returned from his tour of the Middle East.
But the former special ops warfighter chose to devote his life to defending helpless wild animals from facing slaughter at the hands of illegal poachers.
Damien Mander had completed three years in Iraq where he trained and deployed paramilitary forces to the front lines of combat.
Before that, he had served as a special operations sniper in the Australian Army's Special Forces 2nd Commando Regiment, as well as a Navy Clearance Diver-the Royal Australian Navy equivalent to the U.S. Navy SEALs.
The 40-year-old could well have transitioned into a life of leisure since he had an impressive property portfolio back home.
Instead, Mander visited Africa for a six-month tour where he was exposed to the bloody world of illegal animal poaching in a journey through South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.
The eye-opening experience changed his life forever and convinced the veteran to devote his life to protecting wild creatures with no means to protect themselves from those who would track, hunt, and slaughter them and their parts for any price.
"After Iraq I was looking for the next adventure and [a trip to Africa] just seemed like it was going to be a six-month thing to do.
When I travelled around the continent, I was inspired by the work that the rangers were doing.
They have something really worthwhile fighting for: giving up everything, being away from their family for so long each year defending the natural world.
I had just come from Iraq where we were looking after dotted lines on a map and resources in the ground and it made me reflect on who I was as a person."
It was at that point when the animal-loving war vet decided to sell off all of his properties back home to fund his new passion project: International Anti-Poaching Foundation (IAPF) and a ranger training academy in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe.
Just as he once trained militia forces in Iraq his foundation now teaches rangers how to covertly track poachers, remain cloaked and camouflaged, conduct ambushes, carry out arrests, and preserve crime scenes.
While the work clearly draws from Mander's military skills as a fighter, one of the most essential tools was one he learned during his occupation duties in the war-torn Middle East: to win over the hearts and minds of an often-hostile local population, a problem his military "failed" to grasp during the war.
"Beyond the guns and ammo are the lessons I learned in Iraq that have really been the biggest benefit to what we do.
The ability to get the local population on side, get the hearts and minds, that's more important than anything else and it's something that we completely failed at in Iraq. We're able to take those failures from Iraq and turn them into a positive."
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So far his efforts have seen a 90 percent drop in rhino poaching activities in Kruger National Park-which lies along South Africa's border with Mozambique-where the creatures are coveted by buyers and dealers for their valuable horns. Mander's team was eventually able to drive out poachers entirely.
By 2016, rhino poaching had finally begun to drop for the first time in a decade. Mander said:
"The rate of incursions of poachers into Kruger National Park, about 75 per cent of those were attributed as coming from Mozambique into Kruger and with the operations established on that side of the border, that dropped to around 30 per cent.
We got a lot of credit for that, got a lot of kudos."
Further north in Zimbabwe's Victoria Falls all attacks on rhinos were put to a halt thanks to the IAPF. However, there was no shortage of friction between the Aussie adventurer and poor locals.
For Mander, the problems of prolonged conflict had begun to reveal themselves and it was necessary to change the strategic approach. He explained:
"We had helicopters, drones, canine attack teams, military grade hardware [but] we had this ongoing conflict with the local population and while we might have won that battle overall, what we were doing was not sustainable.
We were saving rhinos and we were having a war with the local population on a continent that is going to have two billion people on it by 2040."
To get the support of the locals Mander decided to begin integrating female rangers into his team. Many of them are themselves victims of predatory attacks such as serious sexual assault, domestic violence, and gender violence in their communities.
The all-female units are now the most elite force within the foundation with 120 rangers having already carried out 140 arrests.
Mander has a sharp message and basic appeal to the humanity of the poachers. He said:
"We are one of millions of species on this planet but we're the only one that determines what level of suffering and destruction is acceptable for all others.
We sit here talking about different species going extinct but the reality is if we don't look after this one beautiful backyard we've been given it's not the elephant or the rhino that's going extinct; it'll be us.
We need to decide if we want to be part of the future and if we do, we need to make changes."