Meet The NGO Enlisting U.S. Veterans To Combat Africa’s Illicit Ivory Trade

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Ryan Tate bravely served his country throughout the height of the Iraq war, but — like many U.S. veterans – struggled to find fulfilling work upon completing multiple tours.

But it wasn’t until the decorated marine veteran was back in the States, where he watched a video of a living rhino whose face was sliced off by poachers determined to seize its ivory horn, that the 35-year-old former sniper inadvertently stumbled across his next mission.

Photo: VETPAW

Despite the many horrors that he’d witnessed in the Middle East, this particular video shook Tate, an animal lover, to the core. “It was like a light bulb went off in his head,” says Fia Perera, an activist and filmmaker who would go on to help Tate — along with a team of equally passionate U.S. veterans — apply their unique skills and training towards bolstering Africa’s anti-poaching effort.

“He said, I just have to get involved. I have to figure out a way to stop this,” says Perara of the video, which inspired Tate to fly to Africa to investigate this situation first-hand.

After speaking with rangers, government officials and other people on the ground, the former sniper learned Africa’s ivory trade extends far beyond a few rogue hunters. It’s actually a highly-organized underground enterprise with kingpins, gangs, and criminal rings that contract locals to do the killing, and then traffic the ivory to fund terrorist organizations worldwide.

Photo: VETPAW

But as Tate learned more about the extreme danger and criminality involved, he also knew he had the perfect solution: fellow U.S. veterans. This awareness led the Florida native to found “Veterans Empowered to Protect African Wildlife,” or VETPAW, in 2013.

Two years later, Tate led a small group of U.S. Army, Air Force, and Special Forces veterans on Operation Tanzania, which sought to help park rangers and local police uncover poachers in a country known to contain 1/3 of Africa’s illicit ivory trade.

The success of that first operation, which trained 400 park rangers and helped local authorities arrest 50 suspected poachers — including a man who’d killed 18,000 elephants by posing as a witch doctor — led to subsequent missions in other countries.

Photo: VETPAW

In 2016, VETPAW deployed “Operation Rhino Shield” to combat a spike in South African rhino killings. Despite once numbering well into the millions, rampant poaching has caused rhino populations to fall to just 25,000 animals, according to the Worldwide Fund for Nature.

The group, which is actively recruiting, currently deploys rotating teams of U.S veterans to provide 24/7 security for endangered animals on two private South African reserves.

Photo: VETPAW/Mike O’Leary

VETPAW also helps local conservation efforts by assisting with vaccinations, outfitting animals with trackable collars, relocating animals to other reserves as needed, and de-horning rhinos, an extreme but proactive measure conservationists have employed to to make rhinos less attractive to ivory hunters. “To this day, we’ve had absolutely zero incidents of poaching,” says Perara, who now serves as VETPAW’s Director of Development.

The group, which has since grown to include 30 to 40 veterans working on a cycle of 3-9 months deployments, seeks to empower park rangers and local communities with equipment, education, and training. while partnering with other NGOs working in this space. This collaborative approach also serves the group’s long-term goal of expanding to multiple parks across Africa — and providing U.S. veterans with meaningful work.

Photo: VETPAW

“Africa is a huge place, there are a lot of poachers, and we need to work together,” says Perarra of VETPAW’s community-centric approach. The group’s upcoming mission, Operation Force for Nature, seeks to roll out operations across multiple reserves, revisit Tanzania, and collaborate with a different NGO working in Kenya.

“We’re specifically repurposing U.S. veterans,” says Perara of VETPAW’s founding mission, which remains as concerned with stemming Africa’s illicit ivory trade as it with providing U.S. veterans gainful employment. U.S. veterans, in turn, are uniquely equipped to combat Africa’s thriving ivory trade.

Photo: VETPAW

“They’ve got this incredible skill set from being in battle – they understand weapons, they understand the training aspect of it, they can parlay that over into an educational piece for the park rangers,” Perara says. Veterans’ collective focus, teamwork, problem-solving, community relations, and “high threshold for chaos” have also proved useful on the ground.

Meanwhile, VETPAW offers U.S. veterans a worthy cause they can enthusiastically embrace, says Perara: “They need a mission and they’re very passionate about ‘what is my purpose’ and my purpose is to help these rangers, help the community protect themselves and their heritage, and also help these animals that could be completely wiped off the face of this earth.”

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J. Swanson is a writer, traveler, and animal-enthusiast based in Seattle, an appropriately pet-crazed city where dog or cat ownership even outweighs the number of kids. When the weather permits, she likes to get outside and explore the rest of the Pacific Northwest, always with a coffee in hand.
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