LESSONS FROM BAGHDAD:
The International Anti-Poaching Foundation on the frontline in Zimbabwe
The illegal trafficking of wildlife currently accounts for a global trade of an estimated $20 billion per year. In South Africa, where organized criminal syndicates have begun to drive the trade, rhino poaching has exploded – nearly 200 have been reported killed in the first six months of 2011, representing more than one a day. As the SANDF steps in to protect Kruger’s rhinos, the epicenter of South Africa’s poaching outbreak, and the government considers legalising the sale of horn in an attempt to control the illicit trade, something a little different is going on in neighbouring Zimbabwe.
Enter Damien Mander and the International Anti-Poaching Foundation (IAPF). Thirty-one, six-foot-something, tattooed, ex-Royal Australian Navy clearance diver/Special Forces commando/private security contractor, Mander seems to have been written for a late night M-net Action special. He’s big, bolshie, crass and delightfully full of it, but Mander has managed to avoid what would certainly be a successful future in bad television, instead, turning his military experience in the Middle East towards a more useful pursuit – conservation.
After Mander completed a security contract to train the Iraqi police in 2008, he took a year off travelling, eventually heading to South Africa to try get a foot in the door with an anti-poaching unit. Mander confesses it was a personal mission; he was off to save Africa’s wildlife. But he travelled to conservancies and reserves across southern Africa and no one would even let him near the action: “Everyone was quite reluctant, quite protective of these little units they had set up, and rightly so…who is this big, ugly, tattooed Australian to come in and tell them how to do things?”
It was only when he reached Zimbabwe, which he had been told to avoid, that he was given the opportunity to work with the Wild Horizons Wildlife Trust anti-poaching unit operating out of Victoria Falls. Observing their activities and patrolling with them in the field, Mander began to write course content that would become the basis for the IAPF’s training manual. He freely admits that he is short on experience when it comes wildlife management, but says his military background has served him well, “Whilst the scenario is a little bit different here than it is in Baghdad, a lot of the principles are the same. It’s the frontline.”
Fortunately, Ian Dupreez, property manager of the nearby Nakavango Estate, saw the value in Mander’s knowledge and was impressed with his enthusiasm. “I had to admire a man who would walk the 12 km to work everyday along the railway line, unarmed in wildlife country to get the whole IAPF foundation started, “ says Dupreez, who assisted Mander in establishing a relationship with the property owners, Rani Resorts. Before long Mander had been invited onto the Estate and the International Anti-Poaching Foundation was born. In a typically bold move, Mander immediately began constructing the Nakavango Ranger Training Academy on the reserve.
Mander confesses his naivety played a big part making things happen: “I had no idea how sensitive doing this kind of training in Zimbabwe could be…a week before my arrival I couldn’t have pointed to Zimbabwe on a map.” While registering the IAPF, a local lawyer gave him a less than one percent chance of succeeding. Mander brashly replied, “They’re good odds, I’ll take them.” Two years later, with the benefit of hindsight, and having experienced the complexities of Zimbabwean bureaucracy, Mander laughs, “I probably should have done things slower.”
Certainly, conservation in this politically and economically uncertain nation is complicated like everything else. Dupreez acknowledges that working with the IAPF has not been plain sailing: “We have had hiccups, threats, constantly under fire because people don’t really see it as important as we do.”
Mander’s persistence, bolstered by a striking personal charisma, has paid off. A gifted networker, Mander has made it his personal mission to build relationships with the relevant powers-that-be. The IAPF informs local officials about all their activities, running joint operations with the local Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) on the property itself.
One of Mander’s greatest strengths is that he speaks simply, and seems to make sense. Recognising that the past economic situation has been a drain on wildlife resources in Zimbabwe and that conservation has justifiably fallen as a priority on the national agenda, Mander says his message to authorities is: “If you look after wildlife you are going to look after people.” Historically, anti-poaching units are a financial burden to their host reserve, but in Victoria Falls the IAPF’s training academy funds itself through tourism activities. The most viable of these is the Ranger Training Assistance Programme (RTAP), which is advertised as allowing donors to: “take part in the development of Africa’s frontline warriors.” The programme has become immensely popular proving Mander’s dictum that, “wildlife used in a sustainable way generates tourism.”
Both Mander and Dupreez are insistent that the IAPF and Nakavango Estate should also be seen as a resource for the local Zimbabwean communities that surround it. Dupreez cites the example of the Malilangwe Trust in the south-eastern Lowveld, which has merged conservation activities, community development outreach programmes and commercial tourism very successfully.
“We need to start talking about what is tangible to people, we can’t be sitting here in ten years time and have done nothing about the communities around us,“ emphasizes Du Preez. Mander is even more straightforward, “When a poacher comes and shoots a rhino here, they aren’t just taking the horn off that rhino, they’re taking away all the benefits to the local community.”
Their model presents the IAPF as a self-sustainable organisation, using funding from tourism on the property itself to provide training and employment for members of the local community. In this way the rhinos are essentially paying for themselves to be protected. Additional funding is funnelled towards outreach programmes in the surrounding villages, and conservation education in Victoria Falls’ schools. The vision is that the IAPF network will eventually be able to supply National Parks as well as private conservancies with a constant stream of up-to-date expertise and equipment.
In the past year, the foundation has nearly completed construction of a training academy at Addo Elephant Park in South Africa and has also been invited to a conservancy in southwest Zambia. Mander’s surprisingly non-aggressive proselytising and sheer earnestness have contributed to the foundation’s success, “It’s not us moving in and taking over an area, it’s people realising that we have something that works, a solution they can use…the IAPF is not something we try to push on people,” he says.
Mander’s best friend, and fellow Australian Steven Dean may disagree with that assertion. Boasting a military career that echoes Manders’, Dean ended his contract in Afghanistan and signed up as the IAPF’s Operations Manager after being relentlessly hounded for a year. Now the duo roll around Victoria Falls in a pair of intimidating matt black Landcruisers adorned with the IAPF logo. The cars attract people like flies who come to ask for a position on the ranger-training course, a job, or just to greet the two recognisable Aussies. “Everyone wants an IAPF t-shirt,” says Dean, “they think we have a lot of money because we drive these cars.” The reality is far less cushy; Mander and Dean have literally put their money where their mouths are, investing all of their rapidly dwindling savings into the IAPF.
As for the cars, Dean’s second-hand Landcruiser breaks down or loses a part at least once every two days. The real money has gone towards building the IAPF’s Nakavango Training Academy on the Estate, where they have just completed a training course for 16 rangers. The reserve features six black rhino, which means that alongside training, the IAPF also runs operations in the field to monitor, protect and prevent poaching.
The effort is essential – according to the WWF’s South African website – poachers in the region are becoming more and more advanced, using all kinds of military equipment including helicopters and night-vision goggles to kill rhinos. The trend has definitely begun to carry over into Zimbabwe, where Du Preez says the authorities are using techniques and equipment left over from the 1960s. He sees the IAPF as bridging this gap, “We need more technical expertise, updated equipment and systems. We can’t stagnate and use 60s principles – that’s where the IAPF role is going to be huge.”
The IAPF’s mission statement shows recognition of this fact: “To protect and preserve wildlife through the provision of specialist training and equipment to anti-poaching units and communities in volatile regions.” In recruiting people to join their ‘Green Army’, the IAPF’s info pack outlines the foundation’s aim to, “counteract the bloodshed through direct action,” and, “maintain a presence on the frontline.” This militaristic tone is not just idiom. Zimbabwe’s policy to shoot poachers on sight signifies the seriousness of the situation and the IAPF’s approach to anti-poaching leans heavily on Mander’s military skills.
In a country where one can be arrested simply for wearing camouflage, this has not surprisingly led to some raised eyebrows. Du Preez admits that Mander and Dean’s military backgrounds have raised suspicions, “A lot of people question why we are having these crack military people coming into Zim to train game scouts…is it a cover up for something bigger? Is there a military connotation to it?” He is adamant that these ideas must be dispelled, “there’s nothing like that. Everybody that I’ve met in the IAPF is hugely dedicated to the cause.”
Mander re-iterates the point, “Fact is I have a set of skills that are going to be beneficial to conservation. I came to Africa with the intention of using those skills only for conservation. The people that have chosen to come on board have seen this wholeheartedly.” Transparency is definitely a watchword for the IAPF and Mander invites detractors to visit the academy in Victoria Falls to see their successes: “The door is always open.”
Indeed, their activities speak loudly. Not only have they built a full training academy, but since 2009 they’ve trained a total of 108 rangers who are now working in conservancies across the country. Additionally, the IAPF has run two medical courses for local rangers, supplied a full research laboratory at Wild Horizons, and been incorporated into Environment Africa’s newly formed Green Zambezi Alliance – a long-term conservation programme for the entire Zambezi Valley.
Last year Zimbabwe had a -0.6 percent growth rate for its black rhino population, which numbers around 800. In contrast, on Nakavango Estate, the black rhino population has experienced a hundred percent increase in the past two years. Victoria Falls, because of its proximity to two international borders, has become a target for all kinds of poaching. But on the Estate the presence of the IAPF has led to a sharp decline in poaching activities, with only two snares being confiscated over a period of six months. In fact, since the IAPF assisted in the arrest of five armed poachers who targeted Nakavango Estate last year, no one has even been caught trespassing. The attempted poachers, who are currently on trial, are expected to receive maximum sentences due to indisputable evidence collected by the rangers.
Though Dupreez’s long experience with rhino conservation dictates that he remains cautious about the IAPF’s success, his solution – selling off stockpiles and farming rhinos – is highly controversial. In the meantime, he sees the public private partnership between the IAPF and the authorities as a vital piece in the anti-poaching puzzle: “The IAPF came in and we haven’t turned back. Damien’s taken my game scouts from strength to strength…I think we’re all better for it. Especially the rhinos.”
AFRICA MEDIA ONLINE MAY AMEND THIS POLICY AT ANY TIME. AMENDED TERMS SHALL BE EFFECTIVE IMMEDIATELY UPON THE POSTING OF THE REVISED POLICY AND ANY SUBSEQUENT ACTIVITY IN RELATION TO THE WEBSITE SHALL BE GOVERNED BY SUCH AMENDED TERMS. IF YOU DO NOT AGREE WITH ANY TERM IN THIS POLICY, PLEASE DO NOT USE THIS WEBSITE.
This Agreement was last revised on 31-03-2020.
Enquiries: Kate Dearlove
Note: Your password will be generated automatically and sent to your email address.