Damien Mander, founder of IAPF and Akashinga.

Bill & Ted time travel to a battle-ripped Iraq, early 21st century, and meet Australian mercenary Damien Mander. “Dude, you’re going to become a conservationist and start a group and save all these amazing wild animals,” they tell Mander. “No way, dudes!” Mander replies.

While that’s not in the script for the next Bill & Ted adventure (but could be!), Mander in real life will tell you his early self wouldn’t have imagined him founding a conservation organization that would work to hold the Thin Green Line between survival and extinction for wild animals.

As a young man, he’ll tell you, he was among the least environmentally aware persons. “I had no idea what a conservationist did other than hug trees and piss off large corporations,” Mander said in a 2013 Sydney TEDx Talks. “I was the idiot that used to speed up in his car just trying to hit birds on the road.” Mander even admitted that he had poached as a teen. He was living a life “a world away from conservation.”

At 19, Mander joined the military and stayed on that track for about a decade. In the demanding job of clearance diver with the Royal Australian Navy, Mander served with a highly trained team applying their expertise to maritime counterterrorism and disposition of explosives. At age 25 he became a special operations sniper, ultimately doing 12 tours of duty in Iraq, which he says programmed him for one thing: to destroy.

Feeling adrift after leaving the military and mercenary life, a 2009 trip to Africa was revelatory for Mander. In the Zimbabwe bush, seeing the extent of animal suffering, and the aftermath of animal murders for their body parts, hit at his core like nothing else in his experience. Mander’s visceral reaction helped define what path the 29-year-old would choose.

Fortunately for wild things, Mander chose to be their voice and join the ranks of animal defenders, making what he believed would be a lifelong commitment to conservation and ultimately, too, a personal choice of veganism. Mander sold off his assets from the spoils of war and his mercenary work to start the International Anti-Poaching Foundation (IAPF). As a direct action organization to end animal suffering, Mander envisioned a conservation nonprofit that would employ military solutions to the war against poachers on the African continent where anti-poaching tools and tactics had been virtually static for years. As Mander describes them, he put some “shitty skills” to work for the right cause.

After working on the front lines fighting poaching in Africa, the IAPF founder has thought a lot about best practices for protecting wildlife in the face of the Sixth Extinction. He approached the work of saving rhinos from extinction with a “fairly militant approach,” he says.

That’s probably not surprising when considering what is at stake. The illegal and brutal destruction of wildlife and natural resources worldwide is nasty business, and extremely lucrative, estimated to be worth more than $200 billion annually. The thinking behind IAPF was that training rangers with 21st century military know-how and technology could be a game-changer for Africa. There, poachers often employ sophisticated weaponry and tactics against, more often than not, ill-equipped, overworked and underpaid rangers trying to defend rhino, elephants and many other threatened species.

And that’s what Mander, now 39, had been doing for the better part of a decade, with projects in Kenya, Mozambique, South Africa and Zimbabwe. Yet, a mental shift in approaches was underway. He wondered if maybe “we’ve done it wrong all these years.”

Too often locals have insufficient say in how conservation programs will affect their communities, even though they will be the most directly impacted. As well, women specifically too often are left out, even though the mantra among environmental groups for many years now has been to empower women to engender desired results, including healthy outcomes for their families.

“A growing body of evidence suggests that empowering women is the single biggest force for positive change in the world today,” IAPF now notes on its website. In rural Africa, research indicates that a woman who earns an income puts three times more than a man back into her local community and family.

In Los Angeles last year, Mander talked about the evolved thinking and IAPF’s program rollout for Akashinga (“The Brave Ones”). Akashinga departs from where Mander long operated, the male-centric world of the military and special ops — what he calls “one of the ultimate boys’ clubs” — and the world of conservation rangers where the male to female ratio is 100 to 1.

With Akashinga, IAPF isn’t giving up the tools in its toolbox though. But, the organization is looking at a move away from the “militarized paradigm of ‘fortress conservation’ which defends colonial boundaries between nature and humans.” Instead, the focus is on rural communities and personal connections, working with the local population and employing locals — all women — to stop wildlife crime in areas that don’t have protection.

An all-female team has its antecedents in South Africa’s first majority female anti-poaching team, the Black Mamba Anti-Poaching Unit. Mander, who had not previously trained women, sought applicants from among the most vulnerable women in rural areas, including victims of physical and sexual abuse, abandoned wives, orphans, sex workers and single mothers — women who “weren’t victims of circumstance; they were victims of men,” Mander says.

Mander put the recruits through “72 hours of hell,” but they proved to be tough as nails, going through the same paces as male rangers trained by IAPF. Ranger training teaches camouflage and concealment, conservation ethics, crime scene preservation, crisis management, dealing with dangerous wildlife, democratic policing, firearm safety and proper use, first aid, human rights, information gathering techniques, leadership, patrolling, search and arrest, and unarmed combat.

Thirty-seven women entered the program, and only three dropped off after three days, which contrasted with another training group of IAPF’s — 189 males started it; only three completed training. The discipline the women displayed every day of training, and since, also is seen in their diet. They all are vegans — a commitment to themselves and to the terms of Akashinga.

Having experienced his conservation awakening in Zimbabwe, it’s rather fitting that another “first” for Mander happened in this landlocked southern African country. An abandoned trophy hunting area where 8,000 elephants were killed in the last 16 years, covering 858,261 acres in the Lower Zambezi, became the responsibility of the first Akashinga team which trained and deployed in 2017.

For Mander’s imperative to “find a way to get community involved,” Akashinga fit the bill. “From what we’ve seen, women do not seem corruptible.” That’s of note in Zimbabwe where the corruption level is viewed as extremely high, aided by the reign of Robert Mugabe who held the vice on power and corruption over the country for nearly four decades. He exited in 2017, along with his wife, a purported illegal ivory dealer.

There were hopes for improvement in the welfare of the people and the country’s rich wildlife — including antelope, buffalo, elephant, giraffe, leopard, lion, rhino, serval and zebras. As a show of her support for the women and their role in Zimbabwe’s rebuilding, Tariro Mnangagwa, the youngest daughter of the new president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, joined Akashinga in December 2017.

But the country’s challenges have seemed overwhelming since the changeover. Protestors have been shot. Inflation hit a decade-high last month. Power is intermittent, and medicine and basic necessities are often in short supply.

Mander appears to try to avoid the politics though. “Getting frustrated … is like going to the beach and getting pissed off about the sand,” he says.

What matters to Mander are results that can be achieved working within his skillset. And so far, so good. The Akashinga team has made dozens of arrests, which have resulted in jail sentences. Among the arrests have been serious crimes related to ivory. Mander says it’s been “more effective than anything I’ve seen.” He notes too that the women have an uncanny ability to “de-escalate everything.”

With the first Akashinga program in Zimbabwe, Mander says the communities see income coming in every 30+ days that’s replacing what had come in from trophy hunting annually. And the pride in the community is clear — some 2,000 people attended the graduation of the Akashinga team. The women are new role models in the area.

“This is the evolution of Man to see something we should have seen in the past,” Mander believes. “Women will change the face of conservation forever.” Essential to ensuring Akashinga’s success, however, is global support — enough individuals and CSR officers need to step up so women can do the job of protecting biodiversity for their immediate communities and, by extension, the world at large. To say trophy hunting is not a conservation model is insufficient; folks have to step up with dollars to back that up.

A version of this article first appeared in The Revelator.

Maria writes about the link between biodiversity loss & overpopulation, and other topics when she gets annoyed. Twitter @TurboDog50 | FB BetheChangeforAnimals