SAS Who Dares Wins star says African ivory poachers have started a secret ‘war’

Authors don’t often tend to be action heroes. The need to sit at home for hours pouring your imagination into a laptop doesn’t tend to allow much time for real-life adventures.

But Mark “Billy” Billingham is different. The former SAS Warrant Officer best known for his appearances in the hit Channel 4 show SAS: Who Dares Wins fought in Bosnia with the élite British Army before taking on heavily-armed ivory poachers in a virtual 'war' on an African game reserve.

It's no surprise that Matt Mason, the hero of Billy’s new novel Survive To Fight, has followed a very similar path.

“Mason is me,” Billy reveals to the Daily Star. “The book is stuff I’ve done, I’ve just changed places, names whatever…”

Whether Matt Mason is undertaking hazardous SAS missions or moonlighting as a celebrity bodyguard, “it’s basically my diary,” Billy says. “I’m literally following my life’s journey."

The book opens with a grim conflict against ivory poachers in Mozambique before Mason races up the Horn of Africa to face off against Somali pirates.

Poachers kill about 20,000 elephants every single year for their tusks. Billy says the brutal conflict with the elephant hunters is taken from his own experience.

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He adds that while the poachers’ brutality against the animals was always shocking, the escalation in their weapons and tactics has taken trading in animal parts for traditional Chinese medicine or decorative ivory pieces from simple criminality to something very close to outright warfare.

“I got into the conservation world about 2007, 2008,” Billy says. When he started, the poachers were carrying basic assault rifles to use against the elephants.

But it wasn’t long before the criminals started upgrading their armoury to take on the park rangers that were defending the animals.

He added: “Jump forwards to about four years ago, I was out in the Congo, and the difference was unbelievable.

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“Now, you’re more or less going up against a complete terrorist militia. The poachers were going after the anti-poaching teams before they’d even started on the animals.

“They were so well-equipped, they used very aggressive military tactics, everything from IEDs to helicopters.

"They would put the fear of god into the anti-poaching teams, actually kill some of them, and then go after the animals.

“There was no sneaking around any more. It was full-on… almost a war between the poachers and the rangers."

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He explains that he even turned his honeymoon into an anti-poaching mission – something his new wife wasn’t entirely thrilled about – and discovered then that poachers were paying for expensive holidays in elephant sanctuaries and other wildlife preserves to scope out where the animals were before later returning to kill them.

The poachers would even bring their wives and children along so they looked like ordinary tourists but would drop homing devices at the waterholes where the endangered creatures were most plentiful to mark their targets.

Billy said: “And when the poachers were ready, then they’d come in… no matter what the cost. Because they could make more money from rhino horn than they could from, for example, gold."

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The Somali pirates too, he says, are these days far more sophisticated than the average person might thinks. “They’re very organised,” Billy says. "There’s a lot of money involved and they’re well-connected.

“Money buys whatever you want, and [the pirates] have even infiltrated our own security”.

“They know where people are, where certain yachts are, and when money’s being moved around. Their spy network is unbelievable. It’s almost as sophisticated as our own."

Billy says that he has to regularly checks that he’s not revealing any SAS undercover operations when he’s writing. “I always say to myself ‘Is there anything I’m saying here that I shouldn’t?’

“I do that on every single page."

Whether it’s as an SAS operative, a bodyguard to the likes of Kate Moss, Angelina Jolie and Tom Cruise, or more recently as a bestselling author Billy has used his skills and experience to forge himself a career.

Survive to Fight by Billy Billingham is published by Hodder & Stoughton and is in all good bookshops now

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