On 5th January a family of 12 elephants were gunned down before their tusks were hacked off by a group of ruthless poachers armed with automatic rifles and machetes. This incident, which took place in Kenya, is the worst single loss on record for 30 years. But sadly, it isn’t unusual.
We are all familiar with the adverts on television, pleading for donations towards anti-poaching campaigns, but they wash over most of us; a few fleeting moments of guilt and shock are soon forgotten. This is what is at stake. There will no longer be elephants or rhinos if poaching continues at its current level. The battle is raging more fiercely than ever and it’s easy to forget that poaching is still rife in certain parts of the world, with China seizing a total amount of 41,095.5kg of ivory in the period from 1989-2011.
Damien Mander is the founder of the International Anti-Poaching Foundation (IAPF). “The illegal trafficking of wildlife is one of the world’s largest criminal industries. Hillary Clinton told us this recently prior to dedicating only $100,000 from the US to fight this. This is a joke – how does this compare to their efforts in fighting drugs?” The IAPF is an organisation that is training rangers, implementing new technology and tactics, and educating children and communities all in a bid to help bring a stop to poaching.
“We no longer live in a society.
We live in an economy”
Prior to setting up the IAPF, Damien served in the Australian military Special Operations unit as a sniper. Upon completion of his military service, he then trained police with a private military organisation in Iraq for three years. After returning home to Australia, Damien decided to travel around Africa. That was when he realised what he wanted to do with his life.
“I arrived in Africa at the beginning of 2009, aged 29. It was in Zimbabwe where the purpose of my journey through life hit home. I was face-to-face with the harsh reality of rangers on the front line, with little resources, trying to defend a global treasure from a determined enemy. It was not something I could ever turn my back on. I gritted my teeth, liquidated my assets and set up the International Anti-Poaching Foundation.” This was a far harder commitment than the army, where Damien was well paid and had a handful of militaries behind him, as opposed to having to beg, borrow and steal equipment to use for conservation that most militaries phased out decades ago.
Among the wildlife that Damien is fighting to protect is the Rhino, and IAPF has an interesting way of trying to protect these creatures: dehorning. The idea behind dehorning is to take away the value of the horn in a desperate effort to protect the rhino, and place them in a secure vault. With less than 4,800 now left in the world, the situation is desperate. De-horned animals are still killed by poachers out of spite, however their chances of survival are far greater without the horn. “The rhino will feel no pain because it’s the same as clipping a toenail or cutting hair, and it will grow back. So every three years, we have to recut that rhino horn. They feel no pain whatsoever. Rhinos do use the horn to defend their young, particularly the black rhinos who use it to push through the thick scrub. But when you look at the alternatives as to whether you cut that horn off or not, until we have better funding for better training and equipment for our people, these sort of solutions, as radical as they may seem, are the only ways we are going to give these rhinos a level of protection” explains Damien.
The reasons for poaching are numerous. In certain South African provinces, elephants are considered vermin and locals believe that poachers are doing them a great justice when their crops are raided or loved ones are killed by getting too close. Another reason is that rangers are given orders from those at the very top of organised crime syndicates who want ivory to sell on the black market. Above all though, the major obstacle to wiping out poaching altogether is Asia’s desire for the mystical powers of the horns, which is embedded in their culture. The Rhino’s horn is hugely sought-after because of its alleged healing powers. It sells on the streets of Vietnam for vast amounts and with this country being the hotspot destination in the Far East for rhino horn trade, it doesn’t look like the desire for this item – fuelled by cultural heritage, economic growth, social status and the need to cure disease – will slow down anytime soon.
After setting up IAPF, Damien headed to Vietnam to investigate the history of Traditional Vietnamese Medicine and the cultural beliefs. Damien explains how he met with Stan Gunn, CEO of Vietnam’s largest media company. We spoke at length about the use of traditional medicine and the millennia long culture, which is almost set in concrete. He said a well-structured country-wide campaign against the use of rhino horn would cost in the vicinity of 40-50 million US dollars annually. “Do you think spending the same amount in the UK could convince Manchester United supporters to become Manchester City supporters?” The answer was obvious. He went on to highlight, “This is not just thousands of years worth of culture, this is thousands of years of ingrained DNA we are talking about and no amount of Western-based media camaigns would alter this. Asians just have different cultures and norms to Westerners and find our concerns about the preservation of wild animals curious and funny. To most Asians, wild animals simply represent food, medicine and money.”
With this in mind, I asked Damien if he thought that the recent Memorandum of Understanding between South Africa and Vietnam to improve cooperation between the two states on biodiversity conservation and protection, including tackling illegal wildlife trafficking, would make a difference: “It’s great that they are thinking along those lines and it is being discussed in a public forum but Vietnam is not a conservation focused country and I don’t think the ministry on their side will get the support it needs.” If Asians express little compassion for captive animals in their own countries – visit a Vietnamese market and you will see the ubiquitous caged hen ready for on-the-spot slaughter – then why would they care about a rhino’s welfare on the other side of the planet? “At the end of my travels I realised that it is not just the Asians directly killing the rhino. They are happy to take the horn from animals dead or alive, wild or domestic. The rhino is being killed by people that sit behind desks on the other side of the world, who decide that wildlife managers in Africa cannot utilise their own natural resources sustainably. They are fuelled by Facebook petitions signed by people who have never seen a rhino – sold on a one-liner about how things need to be done on the ground.”
For landowners in South Africa, the reality is that if they cannot utilise rhinos to attract tourists then the animal is useless to them. Selling the rhino would bring great profit and therefore it is a constant target when living in a protected park. “Anti-poaching units can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. Where is this money supposed to come from?” Damien asks. “Without sufficient protection, a landowner holding ten rhinos may lose two or three a year. However, with the harvesting of just one horn each year at the current market value, the landowner can now invest what is needed into anti-poaching efforts and reduce the threat to the population. With the harvesting of just three horns annually, they can buy more land and breed more rhino, and overall, protect more biodiversity.”
Aiding Damien in his efforts are drones, which allow IAPF to have their eyes on the target, to see things out in front of them and in places that they don’t have the resources to get to on foot. Before, the team would spend hours walking around waiting to bump into something whereas now, with thanks to the drones, they are provided with day or night aerial intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance. “Real-time intelligence is everything in an operational environment. Having this far exceeds locating a two-day old footprint, or worse still, the mutilated carcass of an animal. Having the resources to follow up on intelligence is critical too. If we can cover with a drone in a few hours what a ground team covers in a week then why not extract some of the rangers from the field. They can then be trained as a specialist reaction unit and on constant standby to respond to real-time intelligence.”
Having witnessed first hand, through experiments and trial runs, how hugely beneficial these drones are to the anti-poaching cause, Damien now wants a full time drone with a long-range capability. “I envisage a drone, with a 20-hour endurance, flying endless grids across the Reserve – the ‘unblinking eye’. Live feedback is channelled through computer recognition software, which is programmed to alert staff of any incursions. This type of capability will cost around $130,000 and many will argue that the money could be much better spent in other places. I couldn’t think of a more worthy place. But I’m biased. Now imagine the capabilities of this technology injected into the Rhino Wars raging further South.” Damien told me that by the end of 2013, he hopes to be deploying affordable, military grade UAVs: Unmanned Aerial Vehicles that routinely patrol the skies anywhere the USA has an interest in.
Damien’s final words express his unconditional affinity with the anti-poaching cause and how desperately he wants to open our eyes to the very real threat these animals that we share the planet with, are facing. “I’m often asked how I can focus so hard on protecting animals when there are people suffering around the world. I ask them if they would have more of a problem with a dog digging up their flower bed, or a terrorist launching a chemical attack in their city centre. Both are at about the extreme levels of what animals and humans are intentionally capable of doing to really upset your day. Over the past few years I have really started to struggle on a personal level with the way things are unfolding on a global scale. We now share a planet with seven billion other people, all fighting hard each day for a better job, to build a grander house and drive a faster car. We spend each waking moment to advance, to grow bigger, faster and stronger. We spend more protecting our own species than anything else on the planet. We no longer live in a society; we live in an economy. In the short-sightedness of our quest to advance, we have foolishly pushed ourselves to a point where we are scrambling for solutions. We need to decide what is important and then make decisions that matter. We are doing our best to hold back the tide of human encroachment, the unbalanced challenge between dwindling wilderness areas and rapidly increasing human populations. If we all don’t begin to respect this planet, and I mean wholeheartedly, then it is going to chew us up and spit us out.”
This article was edited at 10pm on January 30th.