A Noble War

An ex-soldier of fortune takes up the fight to protect one of the world’s most heavily persecuted creatures.

Damien Mander removes his hat to cover his nose, an act of instinct and ceremony that does little to temper the thick stench of death. The cloudless sky is empty of vultures on this scorching Mozambique morning, and as Mander approaches the kill site, an orchestra of heavy wing beats reveals why. Scores of the scavengers have settled onto comfortable perches, frosted in days of bird shit and molt, for a macabre feast: two dead rhinos, mother and calf.

“The last minutes of their lives would’ve been bloody terrifying,” says Mander, 37, the founder of the International Anti-Poaching Foundation (IAPF), a non-profit organization dedicated to providing Africa’s wildlife rangers with military-style training, management, and resources. A former special-forces sniper who spent six years in the Australian military, followed by 12 tours in Iraq as a private contractor, Mander is now embroiled in Africa’s most volatile wildlife war.

The ridgeline where he stands represents perhaps the most critical strip of territory on the planet for rhinoceros conservation. To the west lies South Africa’s famed Kruger National Park, home to more than 8,000 rhinos, roughly one-third of the continent’s remaining population. To the east is Sabie Game Park, one of nine private borderland reserves that compose the 958-square-mile Greater Lembobo Conservancy in Mozambique, among the world’s poorest countries and home to sophisticated poaching syndicates that haunt Kruger and are hunting rhinos toward extinction.

Three nights prior, this rhino pair and two young bulls were just a quartet of peaceful grazers snacking their way along a narrow creek bed, oblivious to international borders and the bounty that an insatiable black market has placed, quite literally, on their head. Then, under a three-quarters moon, two poachers tracked the herd through the thorn scrub, took aim with a .375 hunting rifle, and fired. The mother went down with three shots, the calf with a fourth.

Mander, standing a hulking 6 feet 3 inches tall and weighing 240 pounds, slowly approaches the mother, lying on her side on a gentle slope overlooking the savanna. A giant crater rots where her 3-foot-long horn once grew. Machete wounds run up her back and across her hind legs. She was still alive when the poachers went to work. They cut her spinal cord and tendons in her legs to immobilize her, before carving out her horn. Scavengers made quick work of the carcass once the poachers left, rendering this 2-ton megaherbivore to little more than leather. Next to her lies her calf, deflated like a popped balloon and bearing matching wounds and missing horns. “It’s shattering,” says Mander. “It’s like you’ve been given something very important to take care of and someone’s come and taken that away.”

Rhinos are under siege. In just 10 years, the average number poached annually in South Africa—home to some 20,000 animals—jumped from 17 to more than 1,000. East Asian demand for rhino horn as a cure for everything from hangovers to cancer is so high, it now fetches an estimated $20,000 per pound—despite the fact that it’s made of the same keratin found in human fingernails and has no proven medical benefits. Its illegal trade has exploded into a sprawling global battlefield of sophisticated crime organizations, heavy arms, murder, and corruption. The front lines, once-quiet savannas and woodlands where rhinos wander, have become a war zone.

Mander launched the IAPF in 2009 with a vision to create what he describes as “the special forces of conservation.” The organization is currently managing or assisting security operations in eight parks across southern Africa and, later this year, will launch a two-year anti-poaching leadership college designed to train the next generation of wildlife rangers. Over 10 days in January, I traveled with Mander across southern Africa to get a firsthand look.

Since 2015, the IAPF’s efforts at Sabie have translated into an expansion of the park’s existing security team, implementation of a training and leadership program, and funding for everything from shoes and socks to aircraft to K-9 units. There have been early signs of success in the 99,000-acre park: namely, rhinos.

In 2013, rhino poaching in Mozambique had gotten so bad that government wildlife officials were publicly debating whether or not the animals had gone extinct in the country. “As soon as rhinos would cross [from Kruger into Sabie],” recalls anti-poaching manager Sean van Niekerk, “they’d get shot.” If Sabie rangers found a live rhino in the park, they’d try to chase it back to Kruger. Today, the reserve has a relatively stable resident population. That same year, South Africa National Parks estimated that 75 percent of Kruger’s poachers entered the park through Mozambique; in 2016, that number dropped to 30 percent. General Johan Jooste, the head of special projects at South Africa National Parks, says the IAPF’s efforts have played a “significant role” in the shift. “The numbers speak for themselves.”

And still, 2017 was off to a rough start, for both rhinos and rangers. The helicopter and fixed-wing aircraft were down for repairs, and the K-9 unit was on a training course. Then it rained, 8 inches in just four weeks, more precipitation than the area had received the entire previous year. The dirt roads the rangers use for patrol had turned to thick black cotton capable of swallowing a truck to the axle, making driving the 25-mile fence line impossible. Poachers slipped in and out, killing four rhinos in eight days—one less than in all of 2016. “It shows you how quickly things can turn out here,” says Mander.

Mander represents an unlikely, if increasingly important, brand of conservationist: He’s a military man, drawing lessons from what he sees as a failed desert war to protect an iconic endangered species; a mercenary who’s invested his spoils into a non-profit fighting an African battle that can never definitively be won, but can very easily be lost. 

At the crime scene, the smell of the carcasses continues to ripen, pleasing none but the vultures. The sun climbs toward high noon and we make a dour retreat back to the truck. Mander offers resolve in florid Australian sprachgefühl. “We’ve just got to get up, get back out there, protect the next lot of rhino, and fucking stop these pricks.”

It is a sad and infuriating reality that one of the biggest threats to the existence of any single species of animal is how widely it is admired by humans. Naturally one might assume that the greater esteem a species enjoyed, the more protection it would receive, but rarely is this a proportional equation. Much better to be ignored. Just ask the rhinoceros.

Thirty thousand years ago, rhinos were celebrated in cave paintings in what is now modern day France—right before they were driven to extinction on the continent, probably by weapons made of their own horn. The Chinese revered the rhino for its power and longevity and, as author Richard Ellis noted, considered it a “walking apothecary.” They used its hide to make suits of armor and its horn as a treatment to neutralize poison and cure illness. By the time of the Han Dynasty (600–900 A.D.) China had to import the horn of the once-common pachyderm. Ernest Hemingway described the black rhino with reverence in Green Hills of Africa as “long-hulked, heavy-sided, prehistoric-looking…[with] hide like vulcanized rubber…a hell of an animal.” Like the colonial hunters who began emptying Africa of its large game centuries ago, Hemingway’s intimate knowledge of the rhino sprang from his penchant for shooting them. The Yemeni have no particular reverence for the animal itself, as its modern range has never extended to the southern edge of the Arabian Peninsula. Nonetheless they have been voracious consumers of the great rhino phallus, carving horns into handles for their own decorative phalluses, traditional daggers called jambiyas. It’s the kind of rare, cross-cultural synergy the United Nations might envy if the end results weren’t so tragic: African, Asian, Muslim, and Western societies working in concert, to push rhinos to the brink.

Today, five species of rhino survive, all in varying states of peril. During colonial times Javan and Sumatran rhinos (Rhinoceros sondaicus and Dicerorhinus sumatrensis, respectively) were common enough to be considered pests to tea growers. All that remains of the former is a single population of 63 on the island of Java, while fewer than 100 of the latter live in small pockets on Sumatra and Kalimantan. The greater one-horned rhino (Rhinoceros unicornis) is faring slightly better, with a population of 3,500 split between India and Nepal—up from just 600 in 1975. In 1960, an estimated 100,000 black rhinos (Diceros bicornis) roamed across Africa, compared to 5,000 today. For the time being at least, the white rhino (Ceratotherium simum) represents one of the great conservation stories. By the late 19th century, colonial hunters were thought to have driven the species to extinction until a remnant population of as few as 50 animals was discovered in South Africa. From that modest group sprang the 20,000 white rhinos alive today.

Rhinos serve as an umbrella species. Demand for their horn is so fierce, the thinking goes, that curbing rhino poaching will reduce the poaching of other animals as well. But it’s a constant, exhausting battle. “We have to be right 100 percent of the time,” says Mander. “The poachers only need to be right once.”

Fighting has always come naturally to Mander. As a baby, his mother Karin recalls of her first born, the adversary was sleep. “He would not nap, ever, as if he didn’t want to miss anything.” He grew up in Mornington, a quaint fishing-community-turned-wineland-region 35 miles south of Melbourne, Australia. In middle school, when other kids were playing with firecrackers, Mander taught himself to build and detonate petrol bombs in the backyard. He started a hustle free-diving for squid lures that fishermen lost off the local pier, and then selling them back for five bucks a pop. The water got cold, 55 degrees, and Mander’s 1-millimeter wetsuit offered barely more insulation than a t-shirt. He’d stay in the water for hours. “Looking back,” he recalls, “it was the best training I could have done to be a Navy diver.”

In high school he was a champion discus thrower and star Australian Rules Football fullback. He threw his weight around on the pitch, but also learned that the best fights are those won without throwing a punch. One night, an 18-year-old Mander was shooting pool when his opponent, an even larger specimen, took exception to the fact that he was losing to a cocksure teenager. Words were exchanged. The big guy grabbed his pool cue as if preparing to play cricket with Mander’s skull. Mander picked up his pint glass, chugged his beer… and ate the pint glass.

“He was just staring this guy dead in the eye, chewing his glass,” recalls his gobsmacked friend Brent Loughrey. “He wasn’t bleeding or anything. That ended that dust-up pretty quickly.”

“The secret,” Mander explains, “is to spit, not swallow.”

With narrow set eyes and a sharp nose, he looks a bit like Eminem—if Eminem played middle linebacker for the Pittsburg Steelers. His body is a gallery of tattooed aggression. On his right shoulder, The Incredible Hulk bashes through a brick wall. An H.R.-Giger-inspired image covers his double-wide back, demons peeling away flayed skin to reveal a cyborg skeleton. Arcing from collarbone to collarbone, in Gothic, size-96 font, is the mantra of his formative years: “SEEK & DESTROY.”

“That one worried me a little,” says Karin. “I didn’t know what it would attract.”

At 19, working as a garbage man and running with a crew that ended up behind bars, Mander followed the path of many a rudderless teen, into the Navy. He enlisted as an electronics technician and quickly advanced to clearance diver, specializing in underwater demolitions, ordnance disposal, and maritime counter-terrorism. When Australia expanded its Tactical Assault Group, an elite special-forces unit comparable to the U.S. Navy SEALs, following the September 11 terrorist attacks, Mander jumped at the opportunity.

The diver was a fish out of water. The training ground and punishing skill set—urban warfare, close-quarter combat, sniping—had little overlap with his maritime expertise. He earned the nickname Agent Orange, after the defoliant, because of his tendency to leave a trail of crushed vegetation during stalking exercises. “For a Navy diver,” says Mander’s former commanding officer Col. Brett Chaloner, who now serves on the IAPF’s board, “the learning curve couldn’t have been steeper.”

After six years studying warcraft on domestic soil, Mander left the Navy in 2005 and went to Iraq as a soldier of fortune. “I wanted to get some dirt on my knees,” he says. The reality of the war hit hard. He took assignments of the nation-building variety but even those left him disillusioned. Tasked with training Iraqi police and other security forces, he found that the program stressed quantity over quality. “I was responsible for the death of a lot of Iraqis,” he says. “We were given six weeks to recruit, train, and deploy Iraqis back out onto the front line and that’s not enough time. The government was happy, because they got to put the big figures down saying how many people had been deployed, but [the trainees] either got killed, they deserted, or they joined the insurgency and fought back against the coalition.”

Three years and 12 tours later, Mander was wasted. He’d banked enough money to buy eight residential investment properties and thought he’d escaped Iraq unscathed. The wounds didn’t appear until he returned home. “For a lot of guys,” Mander reflects, “the war doesn’t start until the bullets stop. You get home and you don’t know how to reintegrate into society. I was one of them. I mean, what the fuck do I do? There’s no job for a sniper in the local newspaper.”

In 2008, he went on a year-long bender in South America, which only led to more emptiness. He’d lost direction, a drawn arrow without a target. Then he heard about the rhino-poaching crisis brewing in South Africa. It sounded like a war, a noble one. Maybe, he thought, there was something he could do to help.

With a sharp snap of his fingers, Senzani Tshabangu orders the four other rangers to stop. We’re on foot patrol, it’s nearly midnight, and a storm front has darkened the moon, two days past full, under a carpet of clouds. A tree rustles 100 feet away. The bush comes alive at night, and poachers are far from the only danger out here.

One of the savanna’s more ill-mannered and unpredictable animals steps out of the shadows, a 2,000-pound cape buffalo. “Let’s just wait for a moment,” whispers Tshabangu, 42, who’s all too familiar with ill-mannered and unpredictable animals. A few years earlier, while he was fishing at a nearby reservoir, a crocodile leapt from the water and grabbed his leg. Tshabangu managed to liberate himself from the jaws of death, but the crocodile took its pound of flesh in the form of his right thumb. Tonight, we proceed with caution. “Maybe,” he says of the buffalo, “there is another one in the bush.”

Tshabangu is one of a dozen IAPF rangers who safeguard the Stanley and Livingston Private Game Reserve in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. The reserve has one of the few populations of black rhino in Zimbabwe, and a successful breeding program. The park also serves as IAPF’s headquarters and is where Mander first found a foothold in Africa.

He arrived in Victoria Falls in 2009 and took up residence at a backpackers’ hostel, sleeping on the floor of a 100-square-foot cinder block cabin. Every day he’d walk the railroad tracks, 8 miles each way, to volunteer at a small reserve doing ranger training and security management. Ian Dupreez, the wildlife manager at Stanley and Livingston, had heard of a tattooed, oversized special-forces sniper knocking around town, but didn’t have high expectations. “I can’t tell you how many times these guys come in and tell me they’re going to solve all my problems. They never last.” Dupreez did, however, have a small breeding group of rhino, and knew his reserve had become a target. He paid Mander a visit.

“My first impression,” Dupreez discovered, “was totally wrong. He was absolutely dedicated to this,” he says of Mander. “I brought him onto the property and I’ve never had a regret doing that.” Mander offered to help Dupreez develop, execute, and resource a security plan for the park; in exchange, Dupreez provided Mander with a field laboratory to test, refine, and scale a program.

What started as a fun adventure became Mander’s life’s calling. He came to an inflection point one afternoon six months into his stay, when he found a cape buffalo caught in a poacher’s snare. The animal had struggled so hard to escape that she’d torn her pelvis apart. It was a torturous death. When one of the rangers offered mercy with a bullet to the head, the cow began to give birth.

“I’d finally reached a moral baseline of what I was willing to walk away from,” says Mander. “Everything in my life up to that point was more or less about me. I didn’t join the military to serve my country. I didn’t go to Iraq to liberate the Iraqi people. I did both of those things for adventure. I did it for money. I did it for myself and I was a selfish prick. I thought status was the job I held, and the houses I had, all the bullshit.”

Mander became a vegan. He sold five of the properties in Australia and poured the money into the IAPF. He purchased a game lodge and concession, and developed a 25-year management plan for Zimbabwe’s long-neglected jewel, Chizarria National Park. He built a headquarters and ranger camp at Stanley and Livingston, and helped expand the ranger and management team. “I wanted to put some shitty skills to good use,” he says.

Mander’s methods and objectives are not without critics or controversy. In the big picture, says Keith Roberts, Conservation International’s executive director for wildlife trafficking, the IAPF is simply “not shifting the needle on the ground in any sense.” Poachers, Roberts asserts, are merely a symptom of the problem, not the root of it. The only way rhinos, any wildlife, will be protected from poaching in the long term is if the upstream issues—economic development in Africa, market demand in Asia, and corruption and lack of political will just about everywhere—are addressed. Fighting poachers on the front lines may be an effective way to protect specific parks over the short term but that’s akin to plugging a leaky dam with your fingers. Poachers, like water, follow a path of least resistance.

The successes at Sabie illustrate the point. While the percentage of poachers entering Kruger from Mozambique has dropped by more than half over the past three years, South Africa continues to lose more than 1,000 rhinos annually.

“What we do,” Mander readily admits, “is not the answer. I can write down how to secure a park on the back of a bus ticket, but if you can’t solve the social issues it’s not going to solve the problem. Our job is to stop the hemorrhaging, to buy time.”

While the IAPF’s efforts at Stanley and Livingston had begun showing results after three years of work, white guys with military backgrounds pushing security agendas don’t exactly have an inspired legacy in Africa. Some government officials viewed Mander’s motives with suspicion. What was a counter-insurgency warfare specialist doing out there in the bush? Protecting wildlife? Or building a private army?

Mander’s precarious standing was put under further scrutiny when The Age, an Australian newspaper, published an explosive report in March 2012 claiming that a “secret squadron of Australian SAS soldiers has been operating at large in Africa, performing work normally done by spies, in an unannounced and possibly dangerous expansion of Australia’s foreign military engagement.” Zimbabwe was reported among the targets. Mander, who had been out of the military for the better part of a decade and was in Monaco on a fundraising tour at the time, became collateral damage. He was told he could face charges of espionage—and potentially the death penalty—if he returned to Zimbabwe. After investing three years of his life and his savings into the IAPF, he had been shut down.

“Let’s go see some live rhinos,” Mander growls to Sabie senior ranger Adolph Botha, hardly masking his frustration, as we pile into the truck and drive away from the crime scene where the mother and calf lie. Mander’s only in Mozambique for a few days and Botha, a wiry 27-year-old South African, is eager to temper the grizzly morning with a dash of good news.

Earlier that day, with the air patrol operational again, the rangers spotted one of the young bulls that had been with the two rhinos the night they were killed. “He went up north and met up with another cow-calf pair. He’s not a threat to the dominant bull in the area,” Botha says, hoping the youngster will settle in for a while. Nearby two other rangers had been tracking a pair of young bulls since dawn. We head to a dry creek bed to deliver them lunch.

There never is a good time to face exile but Mander’s expulsion from Zimbabwe turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Facing the choice of either going back to Australia or doubling down, Mander, his wife Maria, and their infant son Leo moved to Nelspruit, South Africa, a gateway town to Kruger and launching pad into Mozambique. There’s no shortage of endangered animals facing existential threats in Africa, but the Greater Lembobo Conservancy (GLC)—that network of wildlife reserves in which Sabie Game Park sits—had spectacular potential for protection: prime habitat the size of Luxemburg, abutting the world’s greatest herds of rhino, in a region with a low human population density.

For two years, Mander worked with public and private stakeholders in both Mozambique and South Africa to develop anti-poaching security plans in the GLC—all the while using those same politicking skills to clear his name in Zimbabwe, where he and the IAPF are reestablished today. Much of his enforcement philosophy is influenced by the mistakes of Iraq, training too many people, too quickly, in order to satisfy politically motivated quotas. “You cannot expect to deal with the types of problems we’re facing by taking shortcuts,” he says.

The rhinos had just wrapped an afternoon mud bath and disappeared into the shade of the underbrush by the time Mander, Botha, and I arrive with lunch for the rangers. Botha kneels down to pick up their tracks and spots the faintest of ridgelines in the soft dust, the outer edge of a rhino’s back foot. He follows the tracks through a thick patch of acacia, squeezing between the thorns like he’s playing vertical limbo. The rain has brought the bush to life and the acacia are pregnant with flowers, tiny yellow balls swollen like sponges.

Botha snaps his fingers and points. A hundred yards away, a spectacular proboscis pokes into a clearing, attached to a four-legged pickup truck the color of a dull quarter. The rhino is so big, somehow even his shadow has mass. His vision is poor and he hasn’t caught our scent, but his waffle-cone-shaped ears swivel around trying to pick up a signal. Satisfied that the coast is clear, he continues into the open followed by a second bull, traveling tail to horn. The trick to tracking them, Botha whispers, is to stay close enough to keep tabs but far enough to avoid spooking them. Otherwise they run, either away from you, in 100-degree heat, or at you, in which case the temperature becomes irrelevant. Either way, no one wants a chase.

Botha, Mander, and I settle into the shade of a marula tree (Sclerocarya birrea) for some rhino watching. When they’re not being pursued by murderous criminals toting military-grade weaponry, the life of these rhinos looks pretty relaxing. Every so often the flick of an ear or a tail reveals some minor, bug-induced perturbation, but the fresh carpet of grass offers them a welcome distraction. Eventually they wander off and the rangers, sufficiently lunched themselves, wander off with them.

Despite the threats they face, these two white rhinos represent success. A century ago, their species was on the brink of extinction. Five years ago, they’d have been lucky to survive a week wandering the Mozambique wilds. And yet, here they are. Mander is determined to see a world where rhinos roam safe and free. “We didn’t come here to lose,” he says, rising to his feet and dusting himself off. He climbs back into the truck and drives the bumpy road to headquarters. There’s a security briefing at 1600 hours.

Thayer Walker

Thayer Walker is a writer and explorer who has covered topics from civil war to deep sea exploration, stranded himself on a desert island for 20 days, and discovered the ninth largest diamond ever found in Arkansas’ Crater of Diamond State Park. He has served as a correspondent for Outside magazine for a decade and his work has appeared in dozens of publications including The New York Times, NPR, and Men's Journal. He is the co-founder of Ink Dwell, an art studio with the mission to inspire people to love and protect the Earth one work of art at a time.

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