Wildlife war zone hero

02 October 2011 - 02:57 By Claire Keeton

Australian Damien Mander honed his warrior skills in the deadly crucible of Baghdad. Now the former soldier is using them to protect Africa's Rhino.

Before we start a full-moon patrol to monitor rhino in the Victoria Falls Private Game Reserve, Damien Mander gives us a safety briefing. If a rhino charges, we have to climb a tree. But Mander promises to protect us if we run into armed poachers.

If anyone can keep us safe from gunmen, it is him. This former soldier has survived 12 tours in Iraq and the "Search & Destroy" tattoo on his chest is backed up by 130kg of muscle.

More sobering is his briefing on what to do if separated, how to use artificial blood, and helicopter evacuation procedures. These are emergency drills that Mander and his paramedic mate, Steve Dean, know well.

After warning us to be quiet, Mander, Dean, a photographer and I followed two rangers into the bush. Not long after we step over fresh rhino dung, we can hear the animal grinding up leaves. We can't see the rhino and Mander signals for us to move to a tall tree.

Then the wind changes. He signals a retreat, leaving the two rangers to guard the rhino.

The threat of hunting increases at full moon and the rangers under his command have already caught poachers armed with an AK-47, axes, knives and a machete near the rhino's territory.

Mander says he knows how it feels to be "hunted by humans" and now he's found his mission in Africa: to stop the slaughter and mutilation of rhino and wildlife by training a green army. All his boyish energy, plus the dollars he earned from soldiering, are being channelled into a project he has started, the International Anti-Poaching Foundation.

"Initially when I met Damien I thought he was a Rambo Australian who wanted to live in Zimbabwe," says Ian du Preez, wildlife manager of the game reserve.

"But he's not just a loose cannon. He's very dedicated and passionate about stopping poaching. He has surrendered his cosy life in Australia and invested almost everything he has in it, although he does not know if it has a future."

Mander likes to defy the odds. First in Iraq, now in Zimbabwe.

"I was told I had a less than 1% chance of succeeding in Zimbabwe (against poaching) and I said: 'Those are good odds, I'll take them'," he says.

The formidable 31-year-old does not accept normal human limits; he does not think twice about trying to push over a one-ton rhino to be dehorned after it has been darted.

"You just need to be careful they don't fall on top of you. This is pretty standard," Mander says.

He found that people could transcend their limits when he was training policemen in Iraq, he said. "I have seen the extraordinary transformations human beings are capable of."

Mander established the Nakavango Ranger Training Academy in the reserve last year. His new HQ, where fish eagles cry and hippos grunt in the sun, is worlds away from the exploding bombs and gunmen of Baghdad.

But the poachers he has in his sights are no less dangerous.

Retracing his journey from Baghdad to the tourist town of Victoria Falls, Mander says Iraq was "just a completely different world".

"I had Fortunate Son by Creedence Clearwater Revival playing on my iPod that first time we touched down. I made sure it was playing on the following 11 tours, every time I touched down into the 'sandpit'. It was my talisman.

"Stepping off the Chinook helicopter into Baghdad for the first time was like landing on the moon: 58°C, constant car bombs going off, small-arms fire, and Black Hawks coming in hard and fast with dismembered soldiers lying in pools of blood."

Mander, who was providing convoy protection for diplomats, was in the firing line.

He says: "Like anything in life though, if you do it for long enough you run the risk of becoming stale, or complacent.

"Three years was enough for me - and I had managed to save enough money to search for a new direction in life.

"The journey definitely put things in clear perspective. I can honestly tell most people the true difference between a good day at the office and a bad day."

After he left Iraq, Mander took a year's holiday in South America - learning Spanish to add to his elementary Arabic - and then went home to Melbourne.

"When I was home, I decided it was time to go to Africa for a bit of adventure. I read a lot of African adventure books, like Wilbur Smith, growing up," he says. "Before I left I had written to organisations saying I wanted to get involved with conservation but got no replies, justifiably; a white foreigner with my background."

Travelling through South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Zambia, he saw the devastation caused by poaching. He had his epiphany in Zimbabwe when he first laid eyes on a poached elephant.

"I always knew I would find my true direction in life while travelling, but I never expected it to be like this," he recalls. "I contacted my family, liquidated my assets immediately and started the foundation."

His fiancée, Maria Udalov, originally from Siberia, has supported him all the way. He met Udalov in a pub in Australia, where she is studying. "My first words to my mate when I saw her were: 'I'll marry that girl'."

He says: "It's tough being away from her, my family and friends, but we have a job to do here and that mission will not be compromised."

Mander's goal is training, at no cost, a green army of rangers in military tactics to protect endangered wildlife.

Watching him at work in dusty green fatigues, hands on hips and legs astride, it's clear he knows what he is doing. When he demonstrates how to lay an ambush, he knows the theory and the practice.

Mander says: "We are teaching the correct escalation of lethal force. This is preserving human life as well as wildlife. In many African countries they have orders to shoot poachers on sight."

He is skilled at capture and on August 17 this year five men, tracked down by his team, were convicted of poaching. They received maximum sentences totalling 100 years, in a landmark case in Zimbabwe.

Mander says the men were heading for the boma in the reserve, where the black rhino breeding programme has its base.

He told us we might see rhino at the boma on our visit, and we were lucky. As we approached, a two-year-old female and a six-month-old male were bumping noses - dehorned for their own protection. It looked like affectionate play between two siblings.

Mommy rhino Busta strolled in for afternoon tea. She stuck her head through a gap in the wooden poles and Mander fed her pellets from his hand. Busta closed her eyes when he rubbed her nose and seemed as contented as a cat. She is habituated to humans but not tame, says Mander.

She will charge you - and has charged him when he moved in too close - the moment she feels threatened.

Mander is like a personal bodyguard to Busta's family and, under his watch, the reserve's black rhino population has doubled from three to six.

The total population of this critically endangered species is estimated at 3000 to 4800 in the wild.

The academy's success is not only in protecting rhino with its regular patrols. In its first year it has attracted more recruits than it can train. At the moment the camp has 20 men, and 180 more turned up to apply for the six positions open in the latest round of training. They pitched up even though it's not a glamorous or high adrenaline job most days, or nights.

In fact, as we found when we joined a patrol to sweep for wire snares, it can be hot and monotonous.

"Patrolling involves endless hours of walking for every two minutes of excitement," says Mander, who has had narrow escapes. For instance, the night his team were setting up an ambush to trap the poachers who are now in jail, they didn't realise they were beingstalked by lions. They were startled by a grunt, fired a warning shot and had to bolt up the nearest trees.

The green soldiers need bush and military skills to do their job, and JC Strauss, founder of eco-ranger training at the SA Wildlife College, has shared his expertise with Mander.

"A rhino dies (nearly) every day in South Africa," says Mander. "We need new qualifications for anti-poaching rangers. In South Africa poachers are using helicopters, automatic weapons and highly restricted veterinary drugs."

He is aware that it is not only rhino that need protection. "For every horn that leaves the country," he says "people don't think what other wildlife has been killed - and what for."