AN EX-ARMY sniper gave up his military career and now saves wild animals from blood thirsty, AK-47 wielding poachers.
Damien Mander leads and trains an elite force of rangers who help protect animals like lions and elephants from the dangerous criminals.
Mander puts his military skills and combat training to use to tackle the poachers – many of whom are heavily armed and backed by shadowy crime syndicates.
He has previously described his unit as the "special forces of conservation".
Poachers are out to kill or maim the animals and make off with prized items such as elephant tusks and rhino horns.
And it is estimated the illegal wildlife trade is worth some $20billion annually worldwide.
With so much cash at stake, the poachers are willing to kill anyone standing in their way to seize their prizes.
And standing between them is Damien and the IAPF rangers to protect the animals and help catch the criminals.
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The IAPF boasts it has helped with a 80% reduction in poaching and a 350% increase in wildlife in the more than 1.1million acres they protect.
And over the past four years more than 800 poachers have been arrested
It is a dangerous job, with one of the IAPF's undercover investigators earlier this year being set on fire and left for dead by a gang of poachers.
The attack on the man – named Tango – is believed to have been a direct retaliation against the IAPF for the arrest of rhino poachers.
Tango's attempted murder highlighted the danger that the rangers and investigators face constantly from the crooks.
Mander told The Sun Online how he spent 10 years in the armed forces before he spiralled to "rock bottom" as he fell into the dark depths of drinking and drug-taking.
But all that drastically changed when the war veteran took what he intended to be six month trip to Africa.
Inspired by the work of anti-poaching rangers and the plight of the wild animals, he gave up his life joined the battle.
Some 12 years later, the 41-year-old has saved countless animals from being ruthlessly slaughtered at the cruel hands of poachers.
Seeing the hard work of rangers really started to change me. I realised there's more to life than running around looking for the next adventure
He founded the International Anti-Poaching Foundation (IAPF) as he formed a team to defend the creatures from the crooks.
Born and raised in Australia, Damien was in the navy before being part of the Tactical Assault Group East – one of two counter-terrorism units set up by the Aussie government in the wake of September 11.
Damien retrained as a sniper before completing a three-year stint in Iraq, training and deploying para-military forces to the front lines.
But by 2008, Damien had had enough of the war in Iraq and wanted to turn his back on the violent and chaotic scenes he had witnessed.
Haunted by the levels of death, destruction and despair he'd seen in the Middle East country, the then 28-year-old left Iraq.
He'd built up an impressive property portfolio but found himself in a dark place after returning home to the sedateness of Victoria, Australia.
Speaking to the Sun Online from Zimbabwe, Damien said: "After Iraq and the military, I ended up on what would probably be described as a pretty rapid downward spiral of drugs and alcohol.
"While there (Iraq), you're surrounded by very tightly, highly trained units. You've got mission and purpose, then all of a sudden that stops.
"It can be tough, especially when you've got someone who's trained to take a head shot from one and a half kilometres away now expected to go home and drive an Uber or flip burgers in a restaurant.
"And you've got a family that's got to try and figure out how to reacquaint with what is often a very different person that comes home."
Damien decided to embark on a six month trip to Africa – touring South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe – and quickly became inspired by the work of rangers.
"I'd just come from working within a $600billion a year defence budget as part of a coalition that was there to protect resources in the ground in Iraq. We had anything we needed to bring us home safely each day," he said.
"Then you come over and you're spending time with rangers that lacked the most basic of training, even boots, uniforms, people that were leaving their families behind for 11 months of the year protecting what we should all recognise to be the most valuable gift we have, and that is nature."
Feeling a sense of purpose once again, Damien boldly decided to liquidate his assets and pour his life savings into waging a different kind of war – animal protection – putting himself directly under threat from the dangerous criminal syndicates behind poachers.
Through his foundation, Damien has watched formerly poorly-trained game reserve rangers transform into a fully-equipped team – out to combat and educate poachers killing innocent wildlife.
"That has significantly disrupted organised crime networks that are focussed on animal or wildlife products as a currency," Damien said.
Zimbabwe has a shoot on the spot approach to poachers, but Damien and his team step away from the use of gunfire.
In recent years, Damien's stance on how to tackle poaching has changed, resulting in the creation of Akashinga – an all-women anti-poaching unit he says is "revolutionising" animal protection away from the "traditional boys' club".
The unit – called Akashinga – he says are more effective than the men, with there being a single incident of corruption.
He added they are better at "de-escalating tension" in their work.
"We started Akashinga with 16 women protecting one reserve of 19,000 acres in 2017.
"We've now scaled to have eight reserves under contract of 1.3million acres with a staff of 240 in Zimbabwe alone, and currently finalising contracts for another 5.2million acres of land in two other countries.
"By 2026 I'd like to have a female ranger force of 1,000, protecting around 10million acres of African wilderness."
Damien – who is also on the National Geographic speakers bureau – says this has freed up a lot of funding which they have been able to pump into community development including healthcare, education and water sanitation.
He said: "There's still a lot to achieve. I've still got the enthusiasm of a 12-year-old.
"I'm extremely proud to be part of a team that is helping to reshape the face of conservation and law enforcement in conservation.
"To have been part of a team that has built this organisation out to not only from an operational standpoint with women playing a central role in the operation but also rebuilding the organisation and the organisation culture to being much more inclusive, gender mainstreamed and I'd say shifting away from the traditional boys' club of conservation."
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