Photo: A White Rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum) cow and calf coated in mud at Sabi Sands Game Reserve, South Africa, 2006. Photo © James Temple. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
The numbers are staggering: As of January 2017, more than 211,000 post-9/11 U.S. veterans are unemployed, according to the figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. While the national unemployment rate is 4.8%, veterans top that at 6.3%.
Former U.S. Marine Ryan Tate, 32, is working to put his fellow veterans to work with the creation of VETPAW (Veterans Empowered To Protect African Wildlife), a non-profit organization funded by private donations that works in a remote private reserve in Limpopo, the northernmost province of South Africa. The veterans have been entrusted with the protection of endangered species, such as rhinoceroses and elephants, from poachers who have pushed these majestic creatures to the brink of extinction.
“Learning about the brutality of the poaching crisis and the rangers who are dying protecting wildlife, hit me harder than anything I’d ever seen—and I’ve seen some crazy stuff. I realized I have the skills necessary to help save animals and the people who risk their lives daily,” Tate explains on his website.
The veterans are equipped with assault rifles, sniper suits, vehicles, trail bikes, and radios—which has also created concern from experts about “green militarization” at Kruger National Park in northeast South Africa.
Elizabeth Lunstrum writes for the Annals of the Association of American Geographers, “What is arguably most striking, however, is that the militarization of Kruger is not altogether unique. Rather, it reflects a broader and intensifying pattern of militarization transforming conservation practice around the world.”
Earlier this year, Crave covered this issue at Kaziranga National Park in Assam, India, where park rangers have been shooting poachers and innocents alike. At the same time, the efforts of park rangers like Rodrigue Mugaruka Katembo, 41, a former child soldier who has worked at Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, heave earned him the prestigious 2017 Goldman Environmental Prize.
With the rise of poaching in recent years, the protection of wildlife has become a top priority for nations where tourism is a vital force to their economy. South Africa is home to 80% of the world’s remaining rhinoceros. In 2007, only 13 were poached. By 2015, that number shot up to nearly 1,200.
In addition to protecting the wildlife, Tate’s team is running training courses for local guides and security staff, passing along the knowledge they learned serving in the armed forces.
In addition to combating poachers and fighting unemployment rates, VETPAW helps veterans manage Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The VETPAW website indicates 20% of post-9/11 veterans have PTSD, and in order to help them cope, they have established HEALS (Horticultural or Animal Husbandry Therapy and Rehabilitation).
Tate told The Guardian, “Everyone gets PTSD when they come back from war … you are never going to get the brotherhood, the intensity again … [There are] all these veterans with billions of dollars of training and the government doesn’t use them. I saw a need in two places and just put them together.”
Tate explained that he selected combat veterans because they resist the desire to use lethal force to subdue a poacher. Instead, poachers are told to lay down their weapons and are then handed over to the police.
A former elite soldier identified only as Kevin told The Guardian, ““This is textbook counterinsurgency here. It’s unconventional warfare. Shooting and killing is easy. The hardest thing is not shooting but figuring stuff out … if you kill someone do you turn a family, a village against you?”
VETPAW understands the needs of veterans, as well as their skills, and puts them to work doing what is needed above all: to protect the Earth from the machinations of humankind.
Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Vogue Online, The Undefeated, Dazed Digital, Aperture Online, and Feature Shoot. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.