Transcript: Damien Mander on Modern Warrior at TEDxSydney

Founder of the International Anti-Poaching Foundation, Damien Mander’s TEDx Talk: Modern Warrior at TEDxSydney (Transcript)

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Damien Mander – Founder of the International Anti-Poaching Foundation

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. [Gunshot]

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 going to 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 and 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.

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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 700 meters 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. Looking back now, on everything I’ve done, and the places I’ve been, in my heart, I’ve only ever performed one true act of bravery. And that was a simple choice of deciding ‘Yes’ or deciding ‘No’. But it was that one act which defines me completely and ensures there’ll never be separation between who I am, and what I do.

When I finally left Iraq behind me I was lost. Yeah I felt – aahh – 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. I was aged 29 at the time. Somehow, I always knew I’d find a purpose amongst chaos, and that’s exactly what happened. I’d no idea though, I’d find it in a remote part of the Zimbabwe bush.

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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 going to 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. These are assets a well-advised mercenary quickly acquires with the proceeds of war. My life-savings have since been used to found and grow the International Anti-Poaching Foundation. The IAPF is a direct-action, law enforcement organization. From drone technology, to an international qualification for rangers, we’re battling each and every day to bring military solutions to conservation’s thin green line.

Now my story may be slightly unique, but I’m not going to use it to talk to you today about the organization I run — in what probably could have been a pretty good fundraiser.

Remember, today is about the question I’m going to ask you at the end. Because it’s impossible for me to get up here and talk about just saving wildlife when I know the problem of animal welfare is much broader throughout society.