Here is the full transcript of anti-poaching crusader Damien Mander’s talk: From Sniper to Vegan at TED conference.
My story begins in Zimbabwe with a brave park ranger named Orpheus and an injured buffalo. And Orpheus looked at the buffalo on the ground, and he looked at me, and as our eyes met, there was an unspoken grief between the three of us.
She was a beautifully wild and innocent creature, and Orpheus lifted the muzzle of his rifle to her ear. And at that moment, she started to give birth. As life slipped from the premature calf, we examined the injuries. Her back leg had been caught in an eight-strand wire snare. She’d fought for freedom for so hard and so long that she’d ripped her pelvis in half.
Well, she was finally free. Ladies and gentlemen, today I feel a great sense of responsibility in speaking to you on behalf of those that never could. Their suffering is my grief, is my motivation. Martin Luther King best summarizes my call to arms here today. He said, “There comes a time when one must take a position that’s neither safe, nor political, nor popular. But he must take that position because his conscience tells him that it’s right.”
Because his conscience tells him it is right. At the end of this talk I’m gonna ask you all a question. That question is the only reason I traveled here today all the way from the African savanna. That question for me has cleansed my soul.
How you answer that question will always be yours. I remember watching the movie The Wizard of Oz as a young kid, and I was never scared of the witch or the flying monkeys. My greatest fear was that I’d grow up like the Lion, without courage. And I grew up always asking myself if I thought I’d be brave? Well, years after Dorothy had made her way back to Kansas, and the Lion had found his courage, I walked into a tattoo parlor and had the words ‘Seek & Destroy’ tattooed across my chest. And I thought that’d make me big and brave.
But it’d take me almost a decade to grow into those words. By the age of 20 I’d become a clearance diver in the navy. By 25, as a special operations sniper, I knew exactly how many clicks of elevation I needed on the scope of my rifle to take a headshot on a moving target from 700m away. I knew exactly how many grams of high explosives it takes to blast through a steel plate door from only a few meters away, without blowing myself, or my team, up behind me. And I knew that Baghdad was a shitty place, and when things go bang, well, people die.
Now back then, I’d no idea what a conservationist did, other than hug trees and piss off large corporations. I knew they had dreadlocks. I knew they smoked dope. I didn’t really give a shit about the environment, and why should I? I was the idiot that used to speed up in his car just trying to hit birds on the road. My life was a world away from conservation.
I’d just spent nine years doing things in real life most people wouldn’t dream of trying on a Playstation. Well, after 12 tours to Iraq as a so-called ‘mercenary’, the skills I had were good for one thing: I was programmed to destroy.
When I finally left Iraq behind me I was lost. Yeah I felt – ahh I just had no idea where I was going in life or where I was meant to be and I arrived in Africa at the beginning of 2009. And we were patrolling along, and the vultures circled in the air and as we got closer the stench of death hung there, in the air like a thick, dark veil, and sucked the oxygen out of your lungs. And as we got closer, there was a great bull elephant, resting on its side, with its face cut away. And the world around me stopped.
I was consumed by a deep and overwhelming sadness. Seeing innocent creatures killed like this hit me in a way like nothing before I’d actually poached as a teenager and they’re memories I’ll take to the grave. Time had changed me though, something inside wasn’t the same. And it’s never gonna be again.
I asked myself, “Does that elephant need its face more than some guy in Asia needs a tusk on his desk?” Well of course it bloody does, that was irrelevant. All that mattered there and then was: Would I be brave enough to give up everything in my life to try and stop the suffering of animals? This was the one true defining moment of my life: Yes or no?
I contacted my family the next day and began selling all my houses. My life savings have since been used to found and grow the International Anti-Poaching Foundation (IAPF). A few years after I saw that elephant I woke up very early one morning. I already knew the answer to the question I was about to ask myself, but it was the first time I’d put it into words: Does a cow value its life more than I enjoy a barbecue? The realization of the flexible morality I’d used to suit my everyday conveniences made me sick in the stomach.
See, I’d loved blaming parts of Asia for their insatiable demand of ivory and rhino horn, and the way the region’s booming economic growth is dramatically increasing the illegal wildlife trade. When I woke up that morning though I realized, even though I’d dedicated my life to saving animals, in my mind I was no better than a poacher, or the guy in Asia with a tusk on his desk. As this ‘overconsumptive meat eater’ I’d referred to some animals as ‘beasts’. When in reality I’d been the beast: destructively obedient, a slave to my habits, a cold shoulder to my conscience. We’ve all had contact with pets or other animals in our lives.