Reporter: Liam Bartlett
Producer: Nick Greenaway
If ever there was a bloke you want in your corner, it's Damien Mander.
Liam Bartlett first met this former Australian commando in 2010. Back then, he'd taken up the battle to save Africa's mighty black rhino from poachers.
Now he's fighting for that great symbol of Africa - the elephant.
It is very much a war and a warning: the images from this battle-field are confronting.
But Damien believes the military technology that kept him alive in Iraq could be the key to victory.
PHOTOS: See more from behind the scenes here.
For those willing to learn more about Damien Mander’s anti poaching campaign please visit his website and for those thinking of visiting Mozambique go to www.lugenda.com.
STORY – LIAM BARTLETT: Sunset in Africa is one of the best times to see its magnificent wildlife. And there's nothing quite so majestic as the elephant. That looks like quite a big herd.
DAMIEN: Yeah, mate, yeah. There’s a few bulls hanging around the outside of the herd there.
LIAM BARTLETT: It's easy to see why former Australian commando Damien Mander has fallen in love with the place.
DAMIEN: A little one – a little one there. He is just a baby. He is over the top of the grass. Yeah, it’s cool, eh?
LIAM BARTLETT: Yeah.
DAMIEN: Takes a while for him to get to figure out how to use their trunk. It’s just like a loose cannon.
LIAM BARTLETT: You wouldn't want to get too close to that baby, they’d be pretty protective, wouldn’t they?
DAMIEN: Yeah, mate, yeah. You know what mothers are like. "Clean your room, honey! Stay away from those people." Sorry Mum.
LIAM BARTLETT: We may laugh, but there's been very little joy in the life of the world's largest land mammal recently. And the images of their plight are certainly confronting. But this is the bloody reality of the ivory trade. It's reached a 30-year high and the signs of slaughter are everywhere.
DAMIEN: Liam, here you go, mate. This one is quite recent. It’s been ripped apart by the lions and hyenas, and the vultures have had a crack as well.
LIAM BARTLETT: Oh, they have. Oh, that's on the nose.
DAMIEN: Yeah it is. You can tell by the teeth it's quite young. Ivory was probably two or three kilos. The whole face has been cut away here, they would have done it with an axe - as quick as possible.
LIAM BARTLETT: What, just hacked the face off?
DAMIEN: Cut into it, mate, it’s like cutting into wood.
LIAM BARTLETT: How long do you think it's taken them to do that?
DAMIEN: Half an hour, mate. Half an hour. From the shot fired, elephant going down, axes into the head, ivory’s out, they're on their way. It's just tragic, mate. Geez, it pisses me off. Freeze! Freeze! Don't move!
LIAM BARTLETT: I first met Damien Mander in 2010.
DAMIEN: Down! Face down! Face down!
LIAM BARTLETT: A young Australian soldier, hardened by 12 tours of duty in Iraq, who decided to lay his body on the line in another war - fighting poachers.
DAMIEN: I had to go through, what I went through - going through Iraq and seeing the worst side of humanity - to make me come over here and spend the time here to understand what is going on here. And you can’t make everyone do that. But it’s something that I know is right. Looking after the environment. If you don’t protect it, this earth is going to chew us up and spit us out.
LIAM BARTLETT: And this is what's at the heart of Damien's war - masses of ivory. The brutal bounty of an estimated 25,000 African elephants slaughtered in just the past 12 months. Why is ivory becoming an issue now, after so many years?
DAMIEN: Geez, mate. It's just an insatiable demand coming from Asia. And how do you meet that? You could compare it to trying to hold back the tide with your own bare hands. And, despite all the good work that's being done here, they desperately need something else that’s going to help them win this battle.
LIAM BARTLETT: And nowhere is the battle more critical than the massive Niassa reserve in northern Mozambique. It's a key buffer zone against the poaching that has pushed elephants to the point of local extinction further north. And joining Damien in the fight is Derek Littleton, who runs eco tourism in part of the reserve. Gee, this is only a little one.
DEREK: Look at the size of the animal. This is a baby, man.
LIAM BARTLETT: Guys, these poachers use AK-47s, don’t they?
DEREK: They are generally using AK-47s, which is totally inadequate for an animal this size. And they just open up and put a magazine into an individual, or sometimes just to shoot into the herd and hope for the best. So you end up with wounded animals running around in the bush, some of them dying later, some of them are a real danger to everybody else out there. And it's just the bloody tragedy of the suffering that goes with it, you know.
LIAM BARTLETT: One of the main reasons these are at the mercy of the poachers is that they get virtually no protection from the local laws. It’s a bit of a throwback to the old colonial days, when elephants were so abundant, but the laws haven't caught up. You see, here in Mozambique, if you steal someone's chook, you'll spend three months in jail. If you kill their cow, you'll spend 18 months behind bars. But if you kill one of these magnificent creatures, you will be out in less than three days.
DEREK: The tragedy of it is that the wholesale slaughter that's going on means that some of these populations are not going to recover. Unless we really put the brakes on now.
LIAM BARTLETT: It's crunch time?
DEREK: It's crunch time.
LIAM BARTLETT: And force must be met with force. A specialist sniper, Damien runs tactical response programs for rangers in Zimbabwe, South Africa and now Mozambique.
DAMIEN: Not like this. OK? Down.
LIAM BARTLETT: But as the poachers get smarter, so must the game-keepers. And that's why Damien is dragging this war into the 21st century. This camera is really just turning night into day, isn’t it?
DAMIEN: It's a FLIR thermal imaging camera, and it’s real game-changer for us. It's an awesome bit of kit.
LIAM BARTLETT: A thermal imaging camera detects body heat. So, no matter how dark it is, any living thing moving across the landscape will be picked up from metres or kilometres away. Meaning the poacher's cover of darkness is blown. It's real spy versus spy stuff, isn’t it?
DAMIEN: Bet you. Mate, I've been involved in conservation for three years, and this is the first time I've laid hands on one of these cameras since I left the military. What I think is - if it's good enough for our soldiers on the battlefield, it should be good enough for the guys trying to protect the animals in the bush.
LIAM BARTLETT: The cameras have picked up a heat signal down on the river, so we move off the mountain to investigate. Of course, at night in the African bush, the poachers aren't the only things that kill.
DEREK: You start thinking about the poachers and you end up running into elephant and lion and buffalo, and so on. You have to be awake.
DAMIEN: It’s bloody dodgy, mate. It's not full of kangaroos and possums out here. I'm still regularly shitting myself.
LIAM BARTLETT: Crossing a river throws crocodiles and hippopotamus into the mix of hazards. Ahead lies a camp. They could be poachers, they could be fishermen. Out here, they are often both. Turns out these men are fishermen, who could produce the licences to be here. So, they've all turned out to be legitimate fishermen?
DAMIEN: Yeah, they are legitimate, their licence checks out.
LIAM BARTLETT: But in Mozambique right now, everyone is guilty until proven innocent. Two mornings later, another group of men proved the point. So this fishing licence is issued to a bloke who is not here?
DEREK: That’s correct, yeah. Actually, in actual fact, every one of these individuals here is here illegally. One bloke is from Tanzania. He doesn't have a legal pass to be here. And the other two are local guys, but they don't have licences either.
LIAM BARTLETT: Which makes you wonder.
DEREK: Yeah. It does. It's very easy for these guys to infiltrate and get in close to where the pockets of elephant are.
LIAM BARTLETT: Well, they get lot more money for a tusk than they would for a basket of those tiny fish.
LIAM BARTLETT: How valuable is this ivory, for the people who are taking it?
DEREK: The man on the ground is receiving about $50 a kilo. US$50 a kilo. And that has escalated from what was $5 a kilo a year or two years ago.
LIAM BARTLETT: So, in very a short space of time it has multiplied exponentially?
DEREK: Yes, absolutely. It’s multiplied tenfold.
LIAM BARTLETT: That's what they get here. But how much does it sell for on the black markets in Asia?
DEREK: We are hearing stories of ivory being sold for as much as $3,000 a kilo.
LIAM BARTLETT: Wow. The stakes in this war could not be higher, and as in any war, intelligence is everything. Which is why Damien's convinced he can win with these. Drones. Unmanned aerial vehicles sending back live intelligence of what's out there.
DAMIEN: Three years in Iraq, I always had these things buzzing over my head, and I knew that they were the reason that I came home safely a lot of the time. So I thought, if we can - if I can have one over there, bringing me home safely, why can't these elephants have one here? You know, we know they work. I can send a drone out and cover in two hours what a ground team – one of our ground teams that ranges – is going to cover in a whole week. You know, I mean, you can’t dispute that.
LIAM BARTLETT: It's an expensive and ambitious plan, but you have to start somewhere. And Simon Beart, an aircraft mechanic from Melbourne, has come to Mozambique to build Damien's first drone.
SIMON: I don't know anything about tactics, about weapons and all of that, that's Damien's area. But I sure as hell can get some technology working here.
LIAM BARTLETT: But you don't get paid anything for it, it's a big call.
SIMON: No, I have done all of this. Damien and I have basically pieced this together ourselves, out of our own back pockets. But we're getting there, mate.
LIAM BARTLETT: All for the animals?
SIMON: All. Yep.
LIAM BARTLETT: But first Damien's drone must launch and fly.
DAMIEN: Away. Off he goes! Like a homesick angel. It's the greatest hope for wildlife we'll ever know.
LIAM BARTLETT: What a ripper! Look at it go.
DAMIEN: As soon as I came over here, I just said, geez, technology is going to win this war. And it will. Drones are the biggest revolution on the battlefield in decades. Mark my words - conservation will be changed by drones. We're entering the drone age.
LIAM BARTLETT: In the sky, on the ground - this battle will be fought on many fronts. But if successful, Damien and his men won't only ensure the future of the magnificent elephant, but potentially all of Africa's extraordinary wildlife.
DAMIEN: We know that if we can look after the elephant, the hardest animal in the ecosystem to protect, we know that everything else is going to be covered. We're looking after the whole environment in that area.
LIAM BARTLETT: So, protect the elephant and effectively you protect all of them?
DAMIEN: Exactly, mate. Exactly.