They’re highly trained soldiers. They’re fearless. They’ve fought overseas serving the United States. Now they’re fighting a new battle: To stop wildlife poaching.
These post 9/11 veterans are tackling the front lines in Africa. Their mission is to help save elephants and rhinos, some of which are critically engendered. They’re part of a group called VETPAW, Veterans Empowered to Protect African Wildlife.
VETPAW started one night after U.S. Marine veteran Ryan Tate just happened to catch a documentary on television.
“On the show there were some poachers, and instead of shooting the animal, they got a hold of a shootable tranquilizer. It doesn’t make a loud gunshot noise,” Tate told Grit Daily. “They darted a female rhino. She went to sleep and they hacked her horn off.”
Then the rhino’s predicament got worse. “She woke up and conservationists found her and wanted to help, but she kept running. She was confused. She was scared. The rhino ended up bleeding out and dying,” he said.
The film showed the daily reality in Africa: Horrifying scenes of animals being hunted and cruelly killed for their horns and tusks. It haunted him.
“Seeing the sheer numbers of rhino and elephants kidnapped, tortured and murdered, all these emotions were pouring out of me,” Tate said. “Every day I woke up miserable.”
The images were so powerful, so emotional and provoking, it changed his life. “That’s when I discovered the crisis in Africa and decided to help the voiceless,” Tate said.
He thought his fighting days in the field were over after serving infantry tours in Iraq and Southeast Asia, but Tate came up with a plan to use his military skills to assist the animals.
“My idea was to take veterans to Africa to help fight poaching,” Tate said. “So, it would help vets, create jobs, and help animals.”
Tate was working at the U.S. State Department at the time, handling security for high ranking foreign diplomats.
He started pitching his plan to government officials and got mixed reactions. “Some people laughed at me, some people were irritated, and some were super thrilled,” Tate said.
Tate’s heartfelt pitch wasn’t quite getting off the ground. So he decided he would make it a reality himself. “It was burning inside me,” Tate said.
He quit his job at the State Department and started VETPAW. In 2014 the group received its nonprofit status from the feds.
So Tate traded his civilian clothes back in for cammo and started networking.
“I had met ambassadors to several countries from African nations when I worked at the State Department,” Tate said. “They helped set me up to work with the federal wildlife parks in Tanzania.”
And as soon as the connections were made, Tate was off to Africa. “I flew over with my own money,” he said.
In Africa, wildlife park rangers are often the only line of defense between animals and poachers. The parks are supposed to be a safe haven for the elephants, rhinos and other animals. Problem is, Tate said, rangers are often overwhelmed, even outgunned. Poachers are downright dangerous.
“Wildlife trafficking is one of the top five international crimes,” Tate said. “Rhino horns and elephant tusks are very much part of this. When you start messing with their bottom lines, which could be a million dollars for one horn, you get some very dangerous people who take notice.”
Conservation groups estimate that dozens of rangers were killed on the job in the last year.
Tate knew when he started VETPAW that his life would also be on the line, and so would the lives of veterans he recruited to help.
“It is absolutely dangerous that should never be forgotten,” Tate said.
Keeping poachers out of parks
Knowing the stakes were so high Tate’s first goal was to teach rangers military techniques to keep the poachers out of the parks. Just like soldiers learn how to keep the enemy away from their base in a combat zone.
It was challenging at first. “I slept with rangers on the dirt,” Tate recalled. “They barely spoke the same language. We’d run up trees because there was a buffalo running at us in the middle of the night.”
Tate started observing how the rangers operated. “You had to figure out how your skills translate,” he said. “I had to figure out what are park rangers good at. They were amazing at tracking wildlife.”
Eventually, Tate developed a training plan integrating his know-how with the rangers’ skills.
And now Tate, and other U.S vets are teaching it to rangers in Africa.
“We teach them how to patrol correctly. How to cover the vast parks with a small number of rangers,” Tate said. “Some rangers have to cover 100,000 acres with mountains, cliffs, and rivers.”
Part of the rangers’ training includes security assessments to identify which areas are most vulnerable to poachers getting in.
Some VETPAW members fight side by side with the rangers, armed, with night vision scopes, and military equipment, ready to spot poachers and stop them in their tracks.
The vets also teach the rangers using the “force multipliers” theory.
“If I train one ranger and teach him everything I know, he can train others. We are multiplying rangers’ knowledge,” Tate said. “It’s increasing their law enforcement and military IQ.”
Basic supplies and medical training
VETPAW vets were shocked to learn of the lack of medical care and even basic necessities for park rangers.
Tate and his crew taught rangers field medicine because in Africa, the nearest hospital may be hundreds of miles away.
“Not a single ranger knew first aid, CPR, nor had they ever seen a tourniquet,” Tate said. “We had rangers dying of Malaria. It was unbelievable and so mind-blowing to introduce a tourniquet and antibiotics to rangers. We bring them medical supplies.”
Tate went over to Africa wondering what high tech supplies he could bring to help– he ended up finding the rangers needed decent shoes.
“Some of these guys didn’t even have heels or soles on their boots. They had holes in them. We gave them our boots and we ran around in gym shoes,” he said.
Veterans also get out in the communities to educate residents about the devastating effect of poaching.
Sometimes poaching head honchos pay villagers, who struggle to support their families, what seems like big bucks to kill an elephant or rhino.
VETPAW members teach the locals not only are they harming wildlife, but they also risk getting arrested, even killed. “We try to teach the kids and the villagers to care for all the animals, even the stray dogs,” Tate said.
The vets share the animals’ pain. Like elephants who die a slow death and can’t move because their leg is caught in a snare trap.
They point to gut-wrenching videos, like one taken and posted by Save the Elephants, which shows the emotion and utter heartbreak an elephant calf displays when he discovers his mother died from an infection.
Tate and his team also try to work within neighborhoods to figure out who the local poachers are, hiding in plain sight, and have them arrested. “We did a lot of undercover investigation and helped local law enforcement,” he said.
Operation Rhino Shield
VETPAW now has two sanctuaries in South Africa. One of their biggest current projects is trying to get 300 Black Rhinos, a critically endangered species, out of a high poaching area and move them to safer park.
They’re also helping dehorn rhinos in private wildlife parks.
“It’s the greatest precaution you can take,” Tate said. “You can do that without injuring the animals. It’s a surgical procedure. While the rhino is knocked out, their horn is sawed off.”
It takes about two years for the horn to grow back. “In the meantime that rhino’s interest to poachers is low,” Tate said. “Keep in mind that on the black market their horns can go for one million dollars. To the right desperate person, it’s worth it.”
Who’s joining the fight?
VETPAW doesn’t release the exact numbers of their vets who have boots on the ground, but they sent more than 30 veterans to Africa last year. Each worked a three to nine-month-long rotation.
“We’ve had amputees on our team,” Tate said. “We have a lot of Purple Heart recipients. We have women veterans.
When you’re fighting for animals there’s something pure about it. They love passing along their knowledge and experience.”
How can you help?
Veterans have to apply and try out to join.
Candidates have to pay for their travel to VETPAW’s training center in Arizona. The organization will put them up and feed them during the 10 day audition.
“This isn’t interviews, we work them to the bone,” Tate said.
If they get the gig and head on a rotation to Africa they’re paid a modest $800 a week.
Civilian help wanted
VETPAW also has options for people who aren’t veterans and want to get involved. Some current and retired law enforcement officials volunteer their time. And open to the public: The group has a “Rhino Monitoring Experience.”
For about $2500, which includes lodging and transportation in Limpopo, South Africa, you can become a conservationist for two weeks. Your job is to track, count and monitor black and white rhinos, elephants, cape buffalo, and leopards.
“You come out and work. It’s one of the hardest jobs to come out and monitor the animals full time,” Tate said. “They’re getting the experience of a lifetime. We have a ton of people signing up for that it’s been amazing.”
VETPAW is always looking for donations, airline miles, sponsorships, computers, vehicles, ATV’s, off-road dirt bikes and command center equipment to help its operations.
From veteran to conservationist
Today Tate, who will never forget his early days sleeping in the dirt with rangers while trying to get his organization off the ground, could not be more proud.
“You see veterans becoming conservationists,” Tate said. “They’ve found for something amazing. I’m super proud of that. It’s so powerful. It’s very rewarding.”
There’s that Lilly Tomlin quote that’s so fitting for what Tate has accomplished, “I said, “Somebody should do something about that.” Then I realized I am somebody,” Tomlin said.
And for Tate being that “somebody” and deciding to fight this battle, in the trenches against poaching, has actually brought him some post-war peace.
VETPAW has changed the lives of dozens of other veterans and helped save countless high-risk animals, who without the group’s help, might just become a page in a history book one day, along with other species which are now extinct.
“Doing what I’m doing saved me. It gave me a happy purpose to use my trauma in life to help another species,” Tate said.
Looking for more news from Watchdog Mary on Grit Daily? Check out her full column, here.