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Credit to IAPF (International Anti-Poaching Foundation)

Release Date

January 25th, 2022


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After a brush with death, Damien Mander searches for a way to change his life and the lives of others. In the second of our two-part series, Damien tells Zainab about founding the International Anti-Poaching Foundation and leaving a life of destruction for one of conservation, innovation, and protecting the planet.

“The distance that you can place between suffering and breaking is what defines the spirit or the character of an individual.”



Zainab Salbi (Host):

Redefined is hosted by me, Zainab Salbi, and brought to you by FindCenter, a search engine for your soul. Part library, part temple, FindCenter presents a world of wisdom, organized. Check it out today at and please subscribe to Redefined for free on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

[introductory piano music]

What’s most important about life? What is the essence of life? Is it what we do? How much we earn? How many social media followers we have? Or is it do we live our lives in kindness to ourselves and to others? Do we live our lives in love to ourselves and to others? In nearly losing my life, I was confronted with these questions, and it led me to the conversations that make up Redefined, about how we draw our inner maps and the pursuit of meaningful personal change.

We are back this time for a second part of my conversation with soldier turned anti-poaching activist, Damien Mander. Last week, Damien told us about his childhood, where he was bullied and beaten up every day, and how that then formed his time as a sniper in the Australian military and then as a private security contractor in Iraq. He had an appetite for danger and aggression, and even a tattoo on his chest that said “Seek and destroy.” The conversation got intensely personal for me, since Iraq is my home country. That episode is really about the relationship between healing and difficult truths. These are not recent events, and yet, for Damien and I, they still leave us raw and with work to do around the issue of forgiveness, forgiving others and forgiving oneself. Today, we discuss how Damien transformed his life from one of war to one of protection and progress, protecting endangered animals and empowering the most marginalized women in Africa in the process. But before we fully explore Damien’s transformation and his vision for conservation, let’s go back to where we left him last week, with a gun to his head in war-torn Iraq.

[piano music fades]

Damien Mander:

We went through a checkpoint and our convoy was blown up going through the checkpoint. It killed a couple of Iraqi security guards, police officers that were at the checkpoint as we’re going through, and as we pushed through, we were surrounded quite quickly by a local Mahdi Army militia and a mixture of militia and rogue police and military officers, and I had a DShK anti-aircraft gun held to my head, and it’s just like, okay, this is it, and it’s like, shit, now, this is it. Okay, this is how it ends. They’re trying to pull guys out of the turret of the other vehicles, and it’s like, okay, and then the US Army Rangers came in and got us out of there and got us back to a base, so I went and took leave, and leave for me . . . So I was single for most of the time, and so leave for me is, every time, just, you go wild when you get out, and you go wild when you’re about to go back in, because this is either it, you’ve just made it, or shit, I don’t know if I’m going to make it.

And so I remember going out after that leave and just really [emphatic exhales] . . . The wheels were starting to come off and I was becoming complacent on my missions and operations and stuff, and then, going back in, I remember on my last rotation and I came out just before the end of 2017, and I remember having to do . . . We had a bunch of missions to do on Christmas day, and of course, business as usual in Iraq, and having to do missions on Christmas day, and I thought, fuck, if I get killed on Christmas day, it’s going to spoil Christmas for my mum for the rest of her life. But I got out of there a few days later and that was it. Yeah. Financially, I didn’t need to be there. Mentally, I wasn’t there. Emotionally, I was done. It was time. It was time to turn the page.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

So as I understand it, that you left and then that led you to a trip, as I understand it, you took a year off and traveled the world. And tell me what happened in that year? What were you looking for? What were you trying to accomplish? What did you do in that year?

Damien Mander:

So I was quite well off financially at this stage. I wasn’t even thirty at the time and I had two apartments in Dubai and I had five houses in Australia. I didn’t own them all outright, but I had paid a lot off most of them. So I was in a pretty good position. And so I’ve done well. I’ve served in some of the most elite military units. I’ve survived three years in Iraq, so it’s okay, I’m going to give myself a reward, and that was a holiday that started in South America, in Buenos Aires, and finished eleven months later in Panama, and it just became huge.

It started off awesome and just partying and drugs and alcohol, but you keep that up. You go from being always on in these units and being trained and then going out—for whatever reason, you had a mission and a purpose and the unit around you, and then, all of a sudden, it’s not there. You go from being always on to completely off, not only off, but out of it. So it was a rapid downward spiral for me. And the deeper and faster you go, the more acceleration it gains, in terms of its momentum and where you’re going, and just cocaine and all night drinking binges. They’d go for three days, not all night. All night, that’s a Monday. Just crazy, wild shit and not using your brain. You’ve got nothing to think about, other than where’s your next score coming from and who are you going out to drink with for the next couple of days?

Zainab Salbi (Host):

So what was it that led you to stop after this one year of partying or numbing yourself or decomposing or releasing? Was it falling in love? Was it trying to see what I’m going to do now for a living? What was it? What was the question that says, okay, it’s time to stop?

Damien Mander:

I didn’t necessarily need to work. I had a layer of financial security there to go and explore, and deep down, I always understood or knew that I would find where I’m supposed to be in travel, in the world. Nothing against home, it’s just I always knew my place wasn’t at home. Not to be running away from anything, it was just home for me just seems secure, and I think that’s the thing I’m most afraid of is being secure and in comfort. I wanted to be challenged and I wanted to have adventure and I would say there was a . . . Up until the early years of my conservation career, I would’ve considered myself selfish, self-centered. I joined the military for adventure, I went to Iraq to make money, and when I came to Africa, I was looking for a fight, another cause. It was adventure. There was nothing really noble or good intentioned about my arrival in Africa. It was a six-month journey.

After you’ve done the shit that I’d done at that stage, being our version of the SEALs, being as a special op sniper, being in Iraq, being in South America, partying it up, there’s very little you can do to impress people, and I’d heard about anti-poaching years before in some barroom chat and it sounded like a cool adventure, and that had sat at the back of my mind for a while, and I think it was South America that brought that option to the surface, maybe as the next adventure, maybe as an opening door, maybe it’s just as an excuse to get out of South America, where I’d already hit rock bottom. And I arrived in Africa and just started working my way around, seeing different operations, different national parks, what was going on, speaking to rangers, and it’s, okay, and I was offering my services and getting closed doors everywhere.

And looking back now, and I get an email a day sometimes from people who are just like I was, that want to come over with their own sniper rifles and automatic weapons and go and hunt poachers and that. I can speak to the person I used to be in that circumstance, because I remember what it was like, the look in the people’s eyes when you’re coming over and saying, “Yeah, I’m here. I’ve got all this experience,” and here, you’ve got someone who’s spent two or three decades building a career in conservation and good relationships with local communities, and then you’ve got some hot-head kid that wants to come in and go out and hunt poachers, and it’s just for all the wrong reasons. It was all part of really steering me into the right direction. You need to be shut down. You need to be told, no. You need to be, I think, forced into a corner, where you have to figure things out for yourself.

I’d say my early first year in Africa, definitely. Well, it showed to me, from being over here into an adventure, to actually wanting to do something long lasting, and then the subsequent years after that shaped me from thinking what I thought was right into what I now know is right. I come from a military background, and when I first came over here, conservation was becoming increasingly militarized, and of course, when you’re a hammer, everything’s a nail. So you find you fall in a cadence with that side of conservation, which was this militarized type of conservation against local communities, that, of course, live on the boundaries of the areas you’re trying to protect. You’ve got elephants and rhinos being hunted towards extinction from these small armed militia-type units that are crossing international borders to come in and hunt these animals for the value of their tusk and their horn.

A rhino horn is selling for 35,000 US dollars a pound, and a rhino can easily have twenty or thirty pounds on its snout. So you’ve got something that should be locked up in a safe running round in an area the size of a small country and being hunted by these groups. And so, there was a place for me at the time, but I just didn’t realize how what I thought my place was would evolve over time to where we are now.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

How did it happen?

Damien Mander:

Yeah, it took us seven years actually to figure out what we do as an organization. So over those initial months, it took me six months to find a start, like an organization that would accept me and say, “Okay, yeah. You can come out and do some work with these rangers.” And so I started working with the rangers and living with them and patrolling with them, and there’s a group of guys out here in the middle of nowhere that had hardly any resources. They were motivated. They just lacked basic training, they lacked basic resources, and most of all they lacked any form of attention or acknowledgment for what they’re doing. And I’d just come from working within a $600 billion a year annual defense budget in Iraq. We had anything we wanted at any time of the day, any piece of equipment. We had drones trying to bring us home safely. At night, we push a button, we’ve got military units coming to pull us out of the shit when shit goes down. And then you come over here and we’re looking after oil in the ground. And then you come over here and you see these guys looking after the heart and lungs of the planet and they’ve got nothing. You’re like, “Okay, right. There’s something here.”

And alongside what was happening with that, and it was happening at the same time. Now, I was never allowed to touch guns growing up. And so of course, the day I turn eighteen, I go and get my gun license, and buy a rifle, and I start hunting. And I never hunted again after Iraq because I knew what it was like to be hunted and to hunt something that would shoot back. In a way I was sort of trying to, as a teenager and early twenties, trying to fulfill some form of male primal respect. I’ll get that from my peers. It’s just bullshit. It’s the most blatant form of insecurity. And to fill that insecurity, you take it out on the most vulnerable. So Iraq had given me this different lens through which to see the world, and I’d never viewed animals the way I viewed them when I arrived in Africa.

We grew up with a dog, German Shepherd growing up, and that was like the closest I ever come to an animal or having compassion for animals. And so then I’d seen all the work that these rangers are doing, leaving their families behind for up to eleven months of the year, out there working for a couple hundred bucks a month, I’m getting paid a quarter of a million dollars a year. And I was like, “Okay, these guys are committed.” And seeing what was happening to the animals that they were trying to protect, it did, it affected me.

And then there was two particular incidents. One was seeing a buffalo, a female Cape buffalo, like one of the most powerful and dangerous animals, the buffalo, in Africa, on foot, is a buffalo. And seeing one of these animals, she had a back leg caught in a wire snare. And the rangers, when we arrived there, the rangers read the ground like you want me understand the front page of the newspaper. It’s a language, and they can tell how long that animal has been there and what’s been going on. Okay, she’s been here for three days. And you could hear the bones crunching under her skin where she’d ripped her pelvis apart trying to escape from this wire snare that was wrapped around her back leg that the poachers put across these paths to try and catch animals. And they wait till they’re in this type of state to come in, and then they’ll smash their spine with an ax, and then they’ll cut their throat, and then take all the meat or whatever it may be.

And this animal, this buffalo, had to be euthanized. And when she was euthanized, this fluid started coming out, and she started to give birth to a stillborn calf. And yeah, that was a very distinctive moment in my life. And watching the rangers sit there and do an autopsy and cut the rest of the calf out. And just this animal that’s just been trying to fight for freedom so hard, so long, willing to rip your own pelvis apart in that desperation and fear and lack of understanding of what was happening to you at the time. It was a pretty, I’d say probably one of the most profound things that I’d experienced up until that point in my life.

And then seeing an elephant with its face cut off. Seeing something the size of a truck killed for something you can hold in one hand, which happens 35,000 times a year across Africa. All that combined, this is all this stuff just going into the blender of my emotions and thought process and purpose, and what am I doing and where am I going. And at the time I had forms involved to go and study at Silverwood Catering College. I wanted to be a chef then at Cape Town. And I was like, “No, this is the one thing in life I can’t turn my back on. This is it.” And I literally contacted my mom. She had a power of attorney over on my property, because if I got killed in Iraq. So she was able to start selling off houses and I set up the IAPF in October 2009. We started off as a service provider, giving training and resources to other units. Yeah. And then—

Zainab Salbi (Host):

We, other, who’s we? You and who else?

Damien Mander:

Well, we started off just me and eventually put a small board together in Zimbabwe. Then we set up a board in Australia as an organization there. My best mate and the guy that was in the car with me, he came and joined me for a number of years as we scaled up. And we started, when I left Australia, I came back from South America to Australia. When I left Australia to come to Africa, I had a one-way ticket and carry-on luggage. I did not even have a check-in bag. twelve years later, we have a portfolio of seven million acres, 270 staff. That’ll double in the next twelve to eighteen months. And running protection with one of the most innovative models for conservation and law enforcement that I think exists.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

Well, let’s talk about that, because that’s how we then end up meeting and me listening to your presentation about your organization. Now tell me, because you said, you mentioned earlier in the interview a few things, that you have become vegan and that you have become a feminist. So tell me the story of why did you become vegan and why did you become a feminist?

Damien Mander:

So we were walking around protecting one group of animals all day long, having to carry arms to do that safely, and coming home and killing another group of animals because we liked the taste of them. And to me, it just didn’t make sense. Although it didn’t make sense, I still suppressed the truth and just kept pushing it down, pushing it down, and didn’t want to acknowledge it. And it’s like I was being the master of bullshit really, to be honest. And then I was asked to do a TEDx talk at the Sydney Opera House. I was given six months’ notice. So it was going to be packed, full Sydney Opera House, to deliver a full-length TEDx talk there. And I had six months to prepare.

And it was in the preparation of that. I was asked to talk about more work and anti-poaching, and was in the preparation of that, that I went down the rabbit hole of animal agriculture and what it’s actually doing to the planet. And I signed up for conservation because I love nature and I love animals also. So I kept saying, “I’m walking around the world, talking on stages and telling people how they need to look after nature and look after animals. And I’m going home and eating a steak, eating a chicken, eating a fish.” I was just like, “I’m a hypocrite.” And the last thing I want to be in this world is a hypocrite.

So when I got up to do this talk on the stage in front of the Opera House, and I spoke about speciesism, about the allocation of different values and rights that we give to different species based on what their meaning to us as individuals are. And for a lot of us, that just means how they taste. We can relate to cats and dogs because we have them as pets. We can relate to some animals because they’re cute and cuddly. We can relate to elephants and rhinos because they’re sexy, and we like to visit them and take photos of them. And a lot of us can relate to pigs and cows and chickens and fish because we are conditioned to eat them. But the truth is that they each share the same, the exact same capacity to suffer. And the only difference in the capacity to suffer is the difference we allow ourselves to accept in our own mind and conscience.

And the truth is a cumulative, and I was exposed to enough truth over a long enough period to eventually acknowledge that I did not want to be the person that I was anymore. And I’d say that is something about me when I make a decision about something, that’s it. So I say when the shutters come up, they never go down again.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

Was it just you deciding, “I’m just going to tell the truth. I’m going to be in truth in myself. I’m not going to bullshit myself again,” or was it the help of a therapist, of a beloved, of an animal? I’m just curious, because sometimes we need help, and sometimes we just have a moment of epiphany and we are like, “I’m not doing this anymore.”

Damien Mander:

There was definitely mentors, although it was a one-way relationship that was being created. Mentors or movies, documentaries that influenced me, watching certain speeches, and one thing leads to another and you’re just doing more and more. And half of it, you’re like, “Yeah, okay. I knew this, I knew this, I knew this. Shit, I knew this. I knew this and I didn’t acknowledge it. I knew this. I pushed to the side. I knew it, but I kept doing what I was doing because I liked the taste of something.” And I just didn’t want to be a part of the system anymore that is responsible for the greatest destruction of nature on this planet and the cause of more death than anything else in history. It’s animal agriculture.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

Now tell me about, because that’s what I love about your work, that makes your work made a huge difference in my ability and willing and desire and to be in this healing conversation with you. It wasn’t only the acknowledgment, which I appreciate, nor only the sharing of the story, which I really appreciate, but it also frankly, was your work, which is not only in the anti-poaching units, and protecting animals, and protecting lands from being pillaged and abused. But also there’s a fact that I’m going to invest in women. Tell me the story of how did you come to that conclusion?

Damien Mander:

Yeah, so we’re taking on bigger and bigger projects as an organization, scaling. Went from being a service provider training rangers to then taking over security portfolios for multiple reserves, and then into some very hostile regions. The biggest project we got back in 2015 was along the border of Kruger National Park in Mozambique. Kruger is in South Africa, Mozambique just across the border there and Kruger was at the time home to about a third of the world’s remaining rhino population. And we went into Mozambique as the only organization separating a third of the world’s rhino and most of the world’s rhino poaching syndicates that were trying to target them. And we came in very heavy-handed with this militarized ground offensive against the local population. This is where the syndicates were operating out from and that was our job.

And we had helicopters, canine attack teams, 165 personnel, four different government departments working there, intelligence networks and drones, military-grade hardware. I remember in 2017, we’d helped drive a massive downturn in rhino poaching, rhino poachers coming through that area into Kruger National Park. A lot of them tried to go south and under the park and come through from the western side via South Africa. But we’d played a significant role in driving a downturn in that section of the park where most of the rhino were. We got a lot of kudos for it. We got a lot of recognition. But I remember sitting there saying, “This is not right. What we are doing is not right. It’s not the answer. It’s not sustainable.”

We were just having a war with the local population. And I remember reading the UN population division projection. It said there’s going to be two billion people in Africa by 2040. I remember thinking, we are not going to win this by having bigger fences and more guns. It was literally a turning point for me. It’s like, “Okay, this is great. It’s working. It’s stopping animals from being killed, but it’s not the answer.” And not having an answer is an answer. It pushes you out to try and find something else. So I remember seeing . . . I was doing a lot of research and broadening my perspective, I think, in trying to understand different ways of having interaction with communities. So I remember seeing a lot of research linking women’s empowerment to be the single most greatest force for positive change in Africa.

That for me was a foreign concept. I’d come from all-male units and the ultimate boys’ club of special operations. So now I’m starting to read about women’s empowerment as this . . . It seemed like a silver bullet, like this amazing tool for development in Africa. I didn’t know how that was going to overlay with the work that we were doing. I see a lot of community projects where there’s cooperatives or collectives of women doing certain projects in the communities or getting certain benefits. I didn’t know how it would overlay with what we were doing in conservation, which is a male-dominated industry where women are outnumbered at a ratio of around a hundred to one in frontline, field-based positions. And when women do get roles close to the front lines, they’re usually stuck on a gate, stuck walking a fence, or stuck at a checkpoint or riding a desk.

So we’re looking at other organizations that had integrated women into frontline conservation roles, and they were being portrayed as doing all the work, but actually held back from doing the roles that the public thought they were doing. And those roles were actually being fulfilled by men. So the question to me was, okay, so what if women could do these roles? What if they were given the opportunity to do that and in turn getting the experience that they would need to rise up into management and lead operations just as other industries had got more women into management, more women on the boards, more women into CEOs, that just wasn’t happening in conservation.

And look, if we were getting it right, the situation would have been so much better in terms of us as an industry and where so many species are racing towards extinction and so much land being lost. So I said, we want to try and start an all-female anti-poaching unit, like an armed, all-female anti-poaching unit. We tried in seven different areas. Well, no, it was six different areas. The seventh area where we actually got a start, but seven different areas, six of them said, “No, we don’t want to take the risk. We don’t want to have women doing this. This is a man’s job.” This patriarchal society. And eventually the only reason we got a start is because we chose an area that had nothing left to lose, that had already lost everything.

It was a trophy hunting area. Trophy hunting had died as an industry. There was no animals left to shoot. And we were able to do a short-term deal with the local chief and the local government to come in and trial a selection for what would go on to become Akashinga, the Brave Ones, as they call themselves. An all-female, anti-poaching unit that’s become more than just an anti-poaching unit. It’s become a model of conservation.

Yeah. So that was the beginning of it. Back in August, 2017, and as I say, it took us nearly seven years to figure out what we do as an organization and who we are.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

Tell me what you learned about that. I remember some of the stories you shared. You were like the men . . . You were also training men and this is my memory, Damien, which is the men would come late or not always on time. The women were showing up really on time, that you were choosing women who are marginalized, who are divorcees or widows and had no choice. That the women were dealing with their identity and with the guns or with the weapons in a very different way than the men were dealing with it. They were dealing with the anti-poachers and with the poachers in a different way. So tell me more about that. Let’s go there.

Damien Mander:

Yeah. So I remember we were working with an Aussie documentary maker at the time, and we were there in the creation stages of the program. And when we were speaking to the local communities, and I remember the local communities asking, “Okay, so who are you looking for?” And me and him, we looked at each other and we were like, “Okay, well if this thing is going to go beyond a three day selection,” which was the . . . The only window they were giving us was a three day selection because they thought this would fail and we would revert back to employing men. So we thought, “Well, if this goes beyond three days, which we think it might, let’s give an opportunity to those that need it the most.” And that’s where the criteria for women that were survivors of serious sexual assault, domestic violence, AIDS orphans, single mothers and abandoned wives and sex workers. That was the criteria for the initial candidates in a country that, when I first arrived, had the lowest life expectancy in the world for a woman. So it was less than forty years of age.

So, yeah. And then I remember eighty-seven women coming down for initial interviews and still to this day, it’s probably the toughest two days of my life, listening to those eighty-seven stories. Now where these women have come from, how they’d even made it this far in life. Yeah. It made me . . . I’d built at the time, I built a career across three continents in training men for combat, frontline deployment. I had never worked with women. And I remember in our units in Australia, we had the University of Wollongong come to do a study on our unit to try and measure what it would take to integrate women into the ranks.

We remember having like a locker room vote of like, “No, we’d rather make our entry standards harder physically than allow women in to work alongside us.” And that was just purely ego and insecurity. So I remember listening to those eighty-seven stories and saying, okay, I remember like a feeling, a lot of resentment saying, okay, I haven’t been a part of anything that’s happened directly to these women individually, but I’ve been a part of sustaining a culture that had oppressed women just like this. And so it was quite a . . . I still say to this day, and I’ve very much become the student and remain the student in so much of where the program has gone and what it’s taught me. But yeah, we started off from those eighty-seven, I think we chose thirty-seven to start selection. And from those thirty-seven, we chose sixteen. Those women were as tough as anything I’ve seen.

And they made me realize the distance that you can place between suffering and breaking is what defines the spirit or the character of an individual. And that is what we need in a ranger. We need spirit and character. And these women had that in spades. We can train the rest as long as you got spirit and character. And yeah, it was very early in the selection process when me and the other instructors looked at each other and we were like, “Okay, this is real. We have to get these women ready for what they’re going to face out there.” They were going out into an area that had lost 8,000 elephants in the sixteen years prior to us arriving.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

And what did they teach you?

Damien Mander:

So, the three things that make this program work, that make it smoke to where it is today, scalable in such a growing land portfolio. The first thing is we haven’t seen any corruption with the women, and Zimbabwe currently ranks, I think, 160 out of 180 countries on the global corruption index. So if you can go to Zimbabwe and remove corruption from the equation of what you’re doing, you’re already halfway home to achieving whatever it is you’re trying to do.

So historically , with men, we would employ men from hundreds of kilometers away and bring them in. And we did that to avoid collusion with the communities they may have grown up with. So they were working in an area, protecting that area, and they would go home on their leave. We’d try and minimize interaction with the local community because we knew it would lead to corruption and either give out information on where elephants or rhinos were going to be or where they’re going to be patrolling. And people will exploit that vulnerability in our operations.

With women, as we’ve scaled, we haven’t had to worry about corruption. They’re either really bloody good at it, and we haven’t seen it yet, or it’s just not happening. Because we haven’t had to worry about corruption, it means we can employ directly from the communities alongside the area we’re trying to protect. Now the largest line items in our budget is salaries for rangers. It makes up a massive component of what we pay out each year. So instead of that money now being distributed around the country into communities hundreds of kilometers away from the area we’re trying to protect, it’s now going directly into the community at household level and mostly into the hands of women. I think 62 cents out of every dollar we spend operationally is going back into the community, alongside the area we protect. And 80 percent of that is at household level into the hands of women.

So we’ve taken the largest line item in conservation and turned it into the most effective community development tool, which is women’s empowerment. So we changed it, we shifted our entire strategy on conservation. We put women’s empowerment at the center of that strategy. It gives us the greatest traction in community development and conservation became the byproduct. We flipped the way that we look at conservation from being inside an area, looking to protect it, to being outside an area, looking to motivate protection from the community. We understood that conservation is not a natural issue. It’s a social issue. And when you deal with the social issues first, rather than last, you’ll have a far greater impact and a far more financially economical rate, if that makes sense. You can achieve far more with far less money.

You’re not having this ongoing war that requires drones and planes and electric-grade hardware, and canine attack teams and bigger fences and more guns and troops on the ground and all that. You’re actually having something far more effective in law enforcement than biceps and bullets. You’re having relationships. And that’s what these women taught me. And in that lesson, that second lesson there, the lesson of relationships versus force and power. Women naturally deescalate tension. My background is counterinsurgency warfare. We are trained to look for a fight and finish it. Women tend to want to have a conversation with something before they blow it up. And that’s very useful when you’re trying to have a relationship with tens of thousands of people that live directly alongside of the area you’re trying to protect. In all of that, and the deescalation that women bring to law enforcement, and deescalation means demilitarization, we actually cut our operational cost by two-thirds. So it freed up a massive component of our budget, which we were then able to reinvest back into the community, into water sanitation, healthcare, and education, to go alongside gender equality and job creation.

And all of this has just become this formula, this evolving formula that we see as best practice, and for us is working. Not only as a sustainable alternative to trophy hunting and the income that generated for local communities, but as a way to motivate communities to see the benefit in conservation at scale. We stopped looking at it as being a service provider and training rangers, and we started going into long-term contracts with local communities. We stopped looking at species, started looking at biodiversity and understanding that when you look at biodiversity as a whole, then all the species are included. Then we stopped looking at parks as standalone parks, and we started looking at landscapes, the network, the wide open network which is a jigsaw puzzle of nature with multiple parks joined together. And in the case of Zimbabwe, eight parks in our portfolio there across the mid- to lower Zambezi and the Sikumbi region of the Zambezi valley of Zimbabwe, one of the largest and most iconic ecosystems on the continent.

The work that these women are doing . . . Seems like every dollar that is spent in community development is a dollar or two less we have to spend in law enforcement. And this is, I mean, I can sit here and say as I said earlier, putting women into the forefront of law enforcement will change the dynamics of society for the better. We had a blank canvas to test that on, because we went into a broken area that had nothing left. It’s not like you can go into Chicago or Detroit and you say, “Okay, we’re going to change out all the male police officers working in law enforcement for women and see what happens.” You don’t have that luxury. We had that luxury to be able to do that and see what happens, to be able to measure the results.

The results have been profound, both in terms of reduction in poaching and increasing wildlife populations, and the money that’s been spent in development in local communities. Women seem to use or carry a weapon as a tool, not a toy. It’s not an extension of ego. In the more than three hundred arrests that they’ve made, there’s only been shots fired once. They’ve helped drive an almost 90 percent downturn in elephant poaching across the region. And at the same time, an almost 400 percent increase in wildlife population. So it’s working, we have a majority of the communities that are on side with what we’re doing. There is still that unfortunate reality of having to carry a weapon because someday they’re going to come up against people that are shooting at them. And yeah, I would love to live in a world where nature is not targeted in such a manner.

We actually have far more staff that are unarmed than staff that are armed. We have the same amount of uniform scouts that are unarmed working in the communities, as what we call community liaison officers, as we have armed rangers in the field. And then on top of that, there’s all the support staff working in habitat, working in ecology. The scientists, the people that are working in development and the communities, the students. We have hundreds of students going through now as part of scholarship programs in schools, underprivileged children, we’ve got nurses in clinics. We’ve got specialists that come in and work with the women. We’ve got trauma healing sessions that are happening in the communities.

And it rightly or wrongly maybe does get portrayed as just a team of armed women out there running around protecting nature, because that is often the sexy side that the media wants to grab a hold of. And it’s a small wedge of a much bigger picture.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

Couple of more rapid questions. Any piece of music that you go to for inspiration or for solace?

Damien Mander:

I like to sit back with a bit of Rodriguez. And I was just in the States and I went and watched the Rolling Stones’ last two concerts.

Zainab Salbi (Host):


Damien Mander:

One in Austin, and then one in Miami. One of our instructors, he works with us part-time when he is in Africa, but he’s one of the head security guys for the Rolling Stones. So I got to go there and take a couple of donors to each concert. It was epic. It was awesome!

Zainab Salbi (Host):

Fantastic! Books that you read, and that really helped transform you in different ways?

Damien Mander:

I think I read a lot of Wilbur Smith growing up, which I think planted a seed for Africa. Papillon is probably my favorite book. It’s just a story of a struggle and survival, and I think in a way that’s been the consistent thing about my life, is just never giving up. I’ve never been exceptionally good at anything or better than anyone else, it’s just I’ve never given up. Just been either stubborn or stupid.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

What has love from family and friends taught you? What is love for you?

Damien Mander:

Love is a door to a new universe that I didn’t know existed until it did. And when you do, you realize it’s bigger than anything else before.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

Mm. What does forgiveness mean for you?

Damien Mander:

Being humble, being willing to forgive and forget. Sit and look at each other as an equal.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

What is truth?

Damien Mander:

Truth is exposing yourself. It’s being vulnerable. It’s acknowledging. Truth is . . . You can bullshit anyone. You can’t bullshit yourself. Being honest to yourself first.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

And what does the Divine mean for you? What is god? Whether it’s God or whether it’s the Divine or whatever is, what is that for you?

Damien Mander:

I believe there’s something bigger than us. I don’t know what it is. I had to research recently on the odds of us being who we are, and the odds of you being you and me being me, scientifically are 400 trillion to one. I don’t believe in anything before this life. I have never been proved of anything after this life. So this is it. This is the one shot we’ve got to do as much as we can.

We’ve got a handful of decades to evolve, to cut away the bits that don’t work. We’ve got a handful of decades to do what nature’s spent billions of years doing, to evolve to become the best that we can be. If there is something after this, I’ll take it as a pleasant surprise, but I don’t believe that there is, I believe this is it. We hit the jackpot just by being us. Don’t fucking waste it.

[closing piano music]

Zainab Salbi (Host):

That was Damien Mander. To learn more about his work, please visit For full transcripts of this episode, please visit Do remember to subscribe to this podcast. It is free and I truly would welcome your comments. You can also follow us on Instagram @find_center, or follow me @ZainabSalbi. Redefined is produced by me, Zainab Salbi, along with Rob Corso, Casey Kahn, and Howie Kahn at FreeTime Media. Our music is by John Palmer. Special thanks to Neal Goldman, Caroline Pincus, and Sherra Johnston. See you next week for another conversation about life’s turning points and lessons learned.