U.S. Veterans Join Fight to End Wildlife Poaching in Africa


by Megan Drake, Care2

Date Published
A new tool to help fight wild animal poaching in Africa is making an impact. Former U.S. Military soldiers are consulting with wildlife rangers to teach methods of intelligence gathering and fighting techniques in the quest to save endangered African elephants, rhinos and other wildlife from poachers.
The Problem
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) banned ivory trade in 1989 due to the dwindling number of wild elephants. Not surprisingly, that caused ivory to become a valuable part of the black market.
Last year Kenyan researchers discovered that raw ivory sales in China increased from $750 per kilogram in 2010 to $1,225 in 2014. The average male African elephant tusk weighed 26 pounds 7 ounces in 1970 but by 1990 that decreased to 6 pounds 10 ounces. The slaughter of so many elephants with larger tusks has left only the small tusked gene remaining in the gene pool. This is likely one of the reasons so many more elephants are being murdered today.
Another reason for the increase in poaching is terrorist groups have discovered it is a profitable source to fund their activities. It’s been reported that, “Al-Shabab, the Somalia-based wing of al Qaida, raises $600,000 a month from poaching to fund its activities.”
While the majority of poachers work for criminal syndicates or terrorists, still some of the poaching is done by locals trying to support their families. For many people living in the aftermath of war-ravaged countries and subsequent poverty, animal poaching has turned into quite a lucrative endeavor.
Elephant tusks and rhino horns are valued for medicinal purposes in some Asian cultures, even though scientific studies have confirmed the long held belief has no merit. Ivory is also praised for jewelry and other decorative items.
An Innovative Idea
A non-profit organization called Veterans Empowered to Protect African Wildlife (VETPAW) has tackled two issues at once — unemployed veterans and illegal wildlife poaching — by providing jobs to veterans to training local rangers in Africa.
Ryan Tate, a retired U.S. Marine, decided to form VETPAW when he realized the special set of skills combat trained veterans possess could be highly effective in addressing the problem of wildlife poaching. Since veterans have a higher unemployment rate than the general population and a skill set that is not as easily transferrable to civilian life, Ryan realized this could be a real win-win.
The Dangers of Poaching to Rangers
Rangers who are hired to protect wildlife have come under much danger from illegal poachers. In a National Geographic article last year, Sean Willmore, president of the International Ranger Federation, reports that, ”Worldwide, about two rangers are killed every week,” adding ”but that’s only partial data, it could be double that amount.”
The real possibility of loss of life along with the emotional and psychological impact of seeing poaching victims suffering and murdered, can cause rangers to experience PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), what many combat veterans experience when returning from war.
According to a July 2014 joint report from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the International Ranger Federation (IRF) and the Game Rangers Association of Africa (GRAA):
Fifty-six rangers have lost their lives in the line of duty in the last 12 months, 29 of whom have been killed by poachers, according to the latest information released today by the International Ranger Federation, which has been monitoring ranger deaths since 2000. Last year’s death toll has reached 102, with poachers and militia responsible for 69 of those deaths. In Africa, 27 rangers have lost their lives in the line of duty in the last 12 months, with nearly 80% of them killed by poachers. As more deaths are reported every week and as the figures represent only the confirmed deaths from some 35 countries that voluntarily report to the IRF, the actual number of rangers killed in the line of duty worldwide could be two to three times higher.
More About VETPAW
Recently another U.S. Army veteran, Kinessa Johnson, has signed on with VETPAW. She traveled to Africa little more than a week ago to join the fight in saving African wildlife.
She has set up a Facebook page to gain support so VETPAW can continue to be an integral part of solving the poaching problem in Africa. Take a look of some of the photos and updates on her page. She really looks like she means business, doesn’t she?
Johnson wants people to know she is not in Africa to hunt poachers. “I’m a technical adviser to anti-poaching rangers so I patrol routinely with them and also assist in intelligence operations,” she told King5 News. “Our intention is not to harm anyone; we’re here to train park rangers so they can track and detain poachers and ultimately prevent poaching.”
Photos of Johnson have made a splash in social media.”Most of the time anyone that is in a reserve with a weapon is considered a threat and can be shot if rangers feel threatened. Our goal is to prevent trigger pulling through strategic movements and methods of prevention.”
Johnson reports she has seen a decrease in poaching in her immediate area, most likely due to the increased presence of VETPAW members. Let’s hope this latest approach will continue to be effective for wildlife and rangers.