Eco warriors … Damien Mander puts International Anti-Poaching Foundation rangers through training at his group's Victoria Falls base in Zimbabwe. Photo: Brent Stirton/Reportage by Getty Images
When, in 2008, he'd finally had enough of the war in Iraq and decided to get out for good - turning his back on the violence and chaos, the helicopter gunships crowding the skies, the car bombs and deadly attacks by insurgents - Damien Mander took the Rhino Bus out of Baghdad. The irony of its name wouldn't become apparent to the young Australian for some time; the then 28-year-old Mander was just happy to ride the heavily armoured vehicle from the city to Baghdad Airport, a place that would take him - a burnt-out former sniper haunted by his memories of the destruction of a country and the despair of its people - someplace else.
Nine years earlier, in 1999, Mander had joined the Royal Australian Navy, training as a clearance diver before joining Tactical Assault Group East (Tag East), one of two counter-terrorism units set up by the Australian Government in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the US.
At Tag East, Mander retrained as a sniper. But he was like a fish out of water, nicknamed Agent Orange by his instructors because he invariably left a trail of destruction behind him - ripped-up bushes, broken branches and the like - whenever he was sent off to "melt" into the landscape.
Game for anything … Mander and one of his soldiers watch over a rhino at Victoria Falls. Photo: Brent Stirton/Reportage by Getty Images
In 2005, a restless Mander was honourably discharged from the navy. He wanted to go to Iraq, where he felt he could use the skills he'd acquired at Tag East in a real conflict setting. And so for almost all of 2006 and 2007, he worked for a private security firm, BLP International, managing a project responsible for retraining the paramilitary wing of the Iraqi police.
The police academy was in a Sunni area in northern Baghdad, in an area bordering the predominantly Shiite district known as Sadr City. "We were in the red zone," he tells me when we meet recently in Melbourne. "There were lots of daily mortars and suicide bombers ploughing into the gates. The first night I arrived, three rockets were fired through the front gates. It was a very small place and we had 400 guards protecting the boundaries. In the middle of all that chaos we were expected to train up to 700 paramilitary police and get them ready for deployment.
"The building we were in used to be the old headquarters of Iraqi intelligence. Downstairs were all these old torture chambers that we had to convert into living quarters. Some horrid shit used to go on there. Less than 100 metres away was the science research institute.
Fighting back … a rhino on a South African game reserve is dehorned as a precautionary anti-poaching measure. Photo: Brent Stirton/Reportage by Getty Images
"From all accounts," he adds, "there was a good relationship between the two departments."
Inevitably, the ceaseless, ongoing violence began to take its toll. "Replacing Saddam Hussein was, I'd say, possibly the only positive thing I noticed," he says. "But at what cost? The country is in absolute chaos now, absolutely destroyed. I made a conscious effort to learn as much Arabic as I could. You'd speak to the Iraqis and they'd say, 'Now we have freedom, but we don't have safety. Before, we had safety, but we didn't have freedom.' "
Some of his most persistent memories are of the helicopters constantly bringing the dead and wounded back to the hospital next to the compound where he was staying.
Big day … Mander and his partner, Maria, on their wedding day in Melbourne. Photo: Davina Jogi
"Walking through the hospital corridors was always tough," he continues. "There were kids with arms and legs missing, their faces disfigured from fire. I remember one day [after a clash with insurgents] when we were rescued by US Army Rangers. When they got us back to their base and took off their helmets and goggles, you could see that they were all about 19 years old."
From Baghdad Airport that day in 2008, Mander flew back to Australia - via the beautiful old Colombian sea port of Cartagena, where he stayed a few months - and to his home on Victoria's Mornington Peninsula. He'd never told his parents that, for the past three years, he'd been living in one of the most dangerous cities on the planet: they thought, because this is what he'd told them, that he'd been working as a security consultant in Dubai. He knew, and they knew, that his restlessness would make this homecoming a temporary one.
Then one day, for no particular reason, he remembered a conversation he'd had with a former colleague in Tag East about making use of their sniper skills to fight wildlife poachers in Africa. He remembered the possibility seeming exotic and life-changing. The new sedateness of his life at home made the promise of this new adventure sound, suddenly, irresistible.
"I thought, 'Yes, I'll go over to Africa and have a look', " he says. "It was all about me and having another adventure. One that was 'cool'. "
At the beginning of 2009, he left Australia once more, flying on a one-way ticket to South Africa. He journeyed through Botswana, Namibia and Zambia, carrying only a backpack. He was off to fight another kind of war.
We were meant to meet in Mozambique. But a missed flight meant that I arrived too late in the Mozambican port town of Pemba in time to take a small plane with Mander to the vast Niassa Reserve, an area as big as Denmark, in the country's remote north.
Since August this year, in the interests of wildlife conservation, the former commando has employed modern wartime technology in Niassa. He has been using unmanned drones to find and track poachers who have been slaughtering elephants in the reserve to the point where local extinction is now a real possibility.
"You know, if you'd asked me years ago what a conservationist was, I'd say a dope-smoking hippie who hugs trees and pisses off large companies," he says when we find ourselves, a few months after the scheduling mishap in Mozambique, talking in an African restaurant in Melbourne.
Mander has none of the overt toughness that you'd expect from a former special-operations commando. He's charming and easy-going with a ready laugh, although one of the first things I notice about him is his direct gaze: he seems to carry the damage of his memories of Iraq in his eyes.
Mander has come home to marry his girlfriend, Siberian-born hospitality student Maria Udalov. The couple plan to live in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, from where Mander runs the International Anti-Poaching Foundation (IAPF), which he founded soon after arriving in Africa. Iraq may be far from his mind these days, but he still cuts an unmistakably heroic dash: he's the Australian who turned up in Africa and started saving the lives of elephants and rhinos.
But he's facing a dangerous enemy: the African-based, Asian-run criminal syndicates making a fortune out of the insatiable black market demand for ivory, the trigger for horrific massacres of elephants on the African continent. (China is reportedly the world's biggest ivory consumer, despite its own laws against ivory trafficking.)
Elephants aren't the only animals that are dying. Rhinoceros are also being killed en masse, thanks to a wild and totally unsubstantiated belief in south-east Asia, particularly in China and Vietnam, that ingesting rhino horn powder can cure many maladies, including cancer. Rhino horn is reportedly fetching prices of about $US65,000 a kilogram as part of this illicit trade - making it more expensive than gold. In Niassa, black rhinos have all but disappeared.
Poachers use everything from AK-47 assault rifles to anti-tank mines to carry out these wildlife massacres. Even so, official estimates of some 25,000 African elephants being killed across the continent in the past 12 months are still stunning. There are also credible reports that some of Africa's worst rebel groups, including the Lord's Resistance Army, have joined in the killing spree - as have rogue soldiers from various armies.
When it comes to the numbers of rhinos being killed, figures vary. But in South Africa, home to an estimated 20,000 rhinos - 90 per cent of the African population - there has been a poaching epidemic since 2008. A record 455 have been killed so far this year, and 448 last year, according to the South African environment ministry. Twenty-two poachers have been gunned down, and more than 200 were arrested last year. Only recently, a Thai national was sentenced to 40 years in prison in South Africa after pleading guilty to charges of exporting rhino horns.
During his 2009 travels through southern Africa, Mander was able to observe the work of local anti-poaching groups. He approached people involved in the running of game reserves and national parks about setting up anti-poaching units, but they weren't interested in his ideas. He was a white foreigner with a military background who, they said, didn't have a clue about what was happening in Africa.
"At the time I was like, 'What?' I had all these skills," says Mander. "In hindsight, of course, it became crystal clear to me. Why would you want someone from outside Africa trying to come in and save your world?"
Zimbabwe, still ruled today by Robert Mugabe, isn't an easy place for a foreigner to live, but it was here that Mander first realised that he was in Africa for far more than a mere adventure. "I was walking through the bush one day and I came across an elephant with its face missing," he explains. "That was it. When I saw that animal poached, it hit me in the face like nothing has ever hit me before. I don't know what Iraq had done to me, but I wasn't the same."
Mander rang his parents and instructed them to sell off the investment properties into which, for years, he'd poured all his savings. He set up the IAPF and got permission from the managers of the Stanley & Livingstone private game reserve at Victoria Falls to run his organisation on reserve land. With money from the sale of his properties, he built a $100,000 training academy and bought an ultra-light, two-seater plane, as well as a couple of land vehicles.
Today, the 32-year-old runs the IAPF with his close friend and former special forces colleague, Steve Dean. The organisation, which has also started operating in South Africa as well as in Zimbabwe and Mozambique, is becoming increasingly well known for establishing crack anti-poaching units by putting locals through specialist tactical response programs. "[In Zimbabwe], we've come up against guys with AK-47s and have managed to make arrests without a shot being fired," he says, adding that he hasn't killed a poacher yet. "There's a shoot-on-sight policy for poachers in Zimbabwe, but we try to step back from that and teach these guys [alternative responses]."
Mander has found joy in watching formerly poorly trained game-reserve rangers undergo a dramatic transformation as they grow in confidence and self-esteem - not least because they're now fitted out with proper equipment and uniforms, including boots. Many of them were earning minimal wages, he says, and expected to go out on 12-hour patrols, up against better-armed poachers as well as potentially dangerous wildlife.
But how tricky has it been for him to run an organisation like the IAPF in a country still ruled by a brutal regime, and where the police and the army remain greatly feared? (Only two years ago, there were reports that the security forces in Zimbabwe were involved in poaching elephants and rhinos.) "I was completely open about my background from the start," says Mander. "For someone like Steve Dean and myself to be doing what we were doing in the country; two ex-special forces soldiers, foreigners, in Zimbabwe giving paramilitary training ... Imagine a couple of Zimbabwean guys in Australia giving paramilitary training outside Melbourne!
"The mandate is that we deal with things on the ground. The relationships that we do have with the authorities have been hard to build. We just want to stick to things we know and be as transparent as we can be. We don't want to jeopardise what we've built. You can only do it by being completely open with the guys. We've been asked lots of questions by all sections of the authorities and they're fine."
Nevertheless, Mander and his IAPF organisation are a direct threat to the shadowy criminal syndicates behind the poachers. "You're dealing with one of the largest criminal industries in the world - the illegal trafficking of wildlife," Mander says briefly when I press him about this. "We live in the bush. If somebody wants to come and have a crack at us, they can."
How serious have the threats been? He replies that, at one stage, he had to leave Zimbabwe, but says he'd rather leave the subject at that.
At one stage in our conversation, Mander talks about how, back in Baghdad, he'd sometimes walk along the banks of the Tigris River, which were lined with gum trees. "I'd sit there alone and crush the leaves and enjoy the smell. One Saturday arvo, I saw two lumps in the water. They were human heads. I grabbed the guards and we got two sticks and pulled [the nearby headless corpses] ashore. They had holes drilled through their hands and a bolt put through them. Their elbow, knee and ankle joints had been drilled out with a power drill and they had been shot in the head at close range.
"Looking back on that, when people ask me why I love animals so much when there are so many people suffering in the world, I think, 'F... that. The worst an animal can intentionally do to you to mess up your day is maybe eat a pair of your runners or dig up your flower bed. What can a person do? Well, I've seen that.
"If I need to go back to Iraq and Afghanistan to get the money to help the IAPF grow and to further our efforts, then I don't have a problem with that," he continues. "I value what we've created and what we believe in more than my own life. The issue of environmental protection is greater than any one person."
Meanwhile, Mander is working hard to encourage people to take seriously the idea of using drones to protect endangered wildlife species - although he hasn't as yet been able to persuade the Zimbabwean authorities to agree to let him use them, as he's done in Mozambique.
The IAPF currently has three drones, all of them built by Simon Beart, a South African-born, Melbourne-based aircraft mechanic and committed conservationist, who travelled to Mozambique to join Mander in Niassa. They're small drones compared to the Predator UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) "that routinely patrol the skies anywhere the United States has an interest", says Mander.
A drone, he points out, can cover in a few hours what a ground team would take a week to achieve, which means that anti-poaching units can become specialist reaction units - on constant standby to respond to real-time intelligence about the movements of poachers.
A fourth, more sophisticated drone is currently being developed for the IAPF by a team of specialists in Australia. "They're what we need to be really able to change things for the future of conservation," says Mander. "We need a good formula working, so that we can then roll them off the production line."
All of this takes money, of course. Mander knows full well from IAPF fundraising drives
In Australia how hard it can be to raise the sort of money that's needed to keep protecting some of nature's most magnificent animals from poachers, who have turned game reserves into conflict zones. Mander, nevertheless, has a vision for the near future of elephants and rhinos roaming through the African bush beneath all-seeing skies.
Indeed, Mander would like to see this happen in every country where wildlife needs protection. "Drones have revolutionised the modern battlefield in a way that gives our soldiers the upper edge," he says. "For me, that relief will become satisfaction when I know conservationists the world over will have access to the same technology - albeit for a different battlefield."