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.

It wasn’t until the decorated former Marine was back in the States that he’d inadvertently stumble across his next mission, after watching a video that — even after all the horrors of war — still shook him to the core.

Photo: VETPAW

That film depicted a living rhino whose face was sliced off by poachers determined to seize its ivory horn. The animal lover found this depiction so disturbing that he flew out to Africa, where endangered rhinos are killed by poachers each day, to investigate the situation first-hand.

After speaking with rangers and government officials on the ground, the Florida native realized poaching extends far beyond a few rogue hunters. It’s actually a highly-organized criminal enterprise run by kingpins and gangs using illicit gains to fund terrorist activities worldwide.

Photo: VETPAW

But as Tate learned more about the dangers involved, he realized he already had the perfect solution: fellow U.S. veterans, a skilled, battle-tested group uniquely suited to combat this burgeoning trade.

This insight led Tate to found “Veterans Empowered to Protect African Wildlife,” or VETPAW, in 2013. Two years later, he would lead a group of U.S. Army, Air Force, and Special Forces veterans on Operation Tanzania, which helped local park rangers and police uncover poachers in a country known to contain 1/3 of Africa’s illicit ivory trade.

Photo: VETPAW

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.

A year later, 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.

Photo: VETPAW/Mike O’Leary

The NGO currently deploys teams providing 24/7 security for endangered animals on two private South African reserves, while empowering local park rangers, communities, and other NGOs with equipment, education, intel, and training.

“To this day, we’ve had absolutely zero incidents of poaching,” says Fia Perara, VETPAW’s Development Director. Such a collaborative approach bolsters local conservation efforts and serves the group’s long-term goal of expanding into multiple parks across Africa.

Photo: VETPAW

“We’re specifically repurposing U.S. veterans,” says Perara of VETPAW’s distinct mission, which remains as concerned with protecting endangered wildlife as it providing U.S. veterans with meaningful work. Such worthy goals sit well with the NGO’s growing workforce, which now includes 30 to 40 vets eager to champion such a good cause.

Photo: VETPAW

“They’re very passionate about ‘what is my purpose,’” says Perara of VETPAW’s U.S. veteran team. Now their “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,” she says.

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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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