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ARUSHA, Tanzania — Shortly before shipping out to Tanzania to start work with a newly formed anti-poaching organization, Kinessa Johnson visited a gun show where she spoke with a citizen journalist about her new gig.
“We’re going over there to do some anti-poaching, kill some bad guys and do some good,” the former U.S. Army mechanic and weapons trainer told the interviewer. Her remarks were posted on YouTube and, like millions of online videos, they lived in relative obscurity. Even Ryan Tate, Johnson’s future employer and the founder of Veterans Empowered to Protect African Wildlife, or VETPAW, says he didn’t know about the video at the time. Had it continued to live in the shadows of the Internet, this would have been more than OK with Tate.
A former U.S. Marine infantryman and Iraq veteran, Tate had spent more than a year using every contact in his personal network to build the anti-poaching organization. He planned to reach out to America’s post-9/11 veterans and utilize their skills to train African park rangers. Many of the lessons learned fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have considerable utility when it comes to protecting wildlife. Park rangers are up against criminal poaching networks that are not unlike insurgencies, as poachers are sometimes drawn from local villages and their identities are often unclear. Rangers must conduct effective patrols, gather and analyze intelligence, build ties with the local community, and employ other tactics that were the backbone of the U.S. military strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Tate had received permission from Tanzania’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism to train rangers in the country’s famed Ngorongoro Conservation Area. In February, he arrived in Tanzania, followed shortly by VETPAW’s five other members, all U.S. veterans, including Johnson and Azad “Oz” Ebrahimzadeh, a U.S. Army Special Forces medic. The six VETPAW members were also joined by a camera crew from Animal Planet, which was planning to turn their efforts into a television show.
Edward Balele, assistant commissioner of the police in Arusha, began meeting with Tate and other members of VETPAW shortly after their arrival in the country. The assistant commissioner, who is involved with anti-poaching efforts, says Tate understood the local culture and was easy to work with. Balele had long hoped to build a training center for the police and park rangers, but he didn’t know where to get the money for such a project. “When I met Ryan, I thought, ‘OK, let’s go,’” recalls Balele. With VETPAW, a registered nonprofit in the U.S., Balele saw an opportunity to bring additional expertise and leverage Tate’s position as an American veteran to generate more funding from the west. (Tate declined to specify how much he’d raised but said VETPAW is in the process of releasing its financial information on its website.)
Meanwhile, VETPAW worked with park rangers in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and the Rungwa Game Reserve, teaching skills such as intelligence analysis, first aid, mission planning and conducting night operations. Though the group spent much of its first months in Tanzania getting its bearings and building relationships, Tate says that in partnership with local authorities VETPAW advised and assisted on operations that led to the arrest of 25 poachers. For Tate, it was the culmination of an effort that had taken him more than a year to put together, a rare opportunity to combine passion and purpose.
‘We always want a simple answer. It’s either good or bad. It’s black or white. Unfortunately, the nature of the environment and the nature conservation in Africa is mixed and nuanced.’
African Wildlife Foundation
Shortly after the VETPAW team arrived in Tanzania, Johnson’s gun show comments resurfaced. Someone posted the video to Reddit and it went viral. The Internet labeled her a “poacher hunter.” Tributes to Johnson began to appear online. Her supporters found pictures from her days as a “tactical model,” when she donned tight fitting combat attire and posed with massive firearms. Although the photos had no connection to VETPAW or Johnson’s work in Africa, people associated her remarks with the pictures.
News outlets began to pick up the story. Although Johnson had detractors, many people viewed her as a rogue hero, stepping in to take drastic action where others had failed. The Daily Mail ran an article typical of the coverage, headlined “Poaching the poachers! Female Army veteran leaves US to join vigilante team hunting down rare wildlife killers in Africa.” As with most of those posting about Johnson and VETPAW at the time, Tate says, no one at the Daily Mail ever contacted him or anyone else in the organization for a comment. (The Daily Mail did not respond to an inquiry about whether it contacted Tate before publication.)
Tate, meanwhile, did not plan to have anyone in his organization “kill some bad guys,” as Johnson had suggested. Even if there were no legal and ethical problems with killing poachers, doing so wouldn’t address the root of the problem. For every poacher theoretically “eliminated,” there are dozens more ready to replace him. As long as poaching remains a multibillion dollar illicit industry and poverty is pervasive in Africa, conservationists say, there will be no shortage of people willing to shoot elephants, rhinos and other African wildlife.
But Tanzanian authorities could not tolerate an apparent vigilante anti-poaching organization operating within the country’s borders. In May, Tate awoke to a 3 a.m. phone call from a friend, telling him that Lazaro Nyalandu, the minister of natural resources and tourism, had held a televised press conference that day saying he was “saddened” and “disappointed” by what the group had posted online. He announced that the government had canceled all its agreements with VETPAW and would not allow the group to operate in the country anymore.
“Nobody actually contacted me about any of this. Nobody at all,” says Tate. “It just kind of happened, which is a little weird. I get it, though, because when you have an image floating around like that it may send off a different message.”
Without much ceremony, Tate and the five other members of VETPAW left the country. Months later, Tate is still working to rebrand his organization and find a way back to Tanzania or another African nation where he can assist anti-poaching efforts.
The Internet’s response to VETPAW underscores the difficulty of trying to engage the public on an issue as complex as protecting African wildlife. Most recently, the Internet exploded after American dentist Walter Palmer killed Cecil, a beloved lion, in Zimbabwe. Palmer reportedly paid as much as $54,000 to hunt a lion and insists that the kill was conducted legally. Internet outrage over the incident led to calls for a blanket ban on trophy hunting. While controversial, the practice has proponents in the conservation sector who point to the millions of dollars trophy hunting generates to protect African wildlife. Many also argue that a ban could put animals at greater risk by removing the financial incentive that hunting fees create for locals to protect wildlife.
“We always want a simple answer. It’s either good or bad. It’s black or white. Unfortunately, the nature of the environment and the nature conservation in Africa is mixed and nuanced,” says Kathleen Garrigan, spokeswoman for the African Wildlife Foundation, or AWF. “Even if we got a handle on poaching, even if demand disappeared for ivory and rhino horn products and there was no more commercial poaching of elephants, rhinos, lions and other animals, we would still have issues mitigating conflict between wildlife and humans. We would still have the issues of trying to ensure that there’s enough space as Africa rapidly modernizes and human communities expand.”
‘Money is the issue. They are approached by people outside the community to help with poaching.’
ranger, Manyara Ranch
Within Tanzania the effort to protect wildlife, particularly elephants, has arrived at a critical juncture. A recent census of Tanzania’s elephants found that from 2009 to 2014, the country lost nearly 60 percent of its population, dropping from 109,051 elephants to just 43,330.
Rhinos also face serious threats. Poachers killed 1,215 rhinos in South Africa last year, compared with 13 in 2008, according to the country’s Department of Environmental Affairs.
The market for ivory and rhino horns in Asia has made it especially difficult to stop poachers. In China, the world’s biggest buyer, raw ivory retails for $2,100 per kilogram. Powder made from rhino horns, which is believed to have medicinal properties, can sell there for as much as $75,000 per kilogram. In Vietnam, rhino horn powder can fetch up to $100,000 per kilogram.
The money fueling the trade of poached ivory and rhino horns has given rise to vast criminal networks and government corruption. An investigation in Kenya found that in 2013, just 4 percent of those convicted of wildlife crimes were sent to prison. Within Tanzania, government corruption has been cited as a key driver of the ivory trade. In one high profile case in 2013, the minister of natural resources and tourism named four members of parliament involved in elephant poaching.
Some governments have taken steps aimed at choking off the market for ivory and rhino products. This spring, China committed to phasing out the legal sale and manufacture of items made from ivory. During his visit to Kenya this summer, President Barack Obama announced a proposal that, if implemented, would amountto an almost complete ban on the sale of commercial ivory in the U.S.
In Tanzania and elsewhere in Africa, anti-poaching efforts have sought to develop and train park rangers and work with local communities near wildlife habitats to give them a stake in the animals’ protection. Other efforts have sought to partner Western and local intelligence services to help dismantle poaching organizations. But even for groups far more seasoned than VETPAW, there is no clear formula for stopping poaching.
The Manyara Ranch Conservancy is a relatively small, 35,000-acre preserve in the north of Tanzania. Two local villages own the land, which is overseen by the Tanzania Land Conservation Trust and AWF, an organization with more than 50 years of experience working on conservation projects throughout the continent. AWF pays Honeyguide Foundation, a nonprofit in Arusha, to manage its ranger program and anti-poaching efforts.
Honeyguide, which has no connection to VETPAW, provides some of the same types of training that Tate sought to offer, such as patrolling. But in addition to building the rangers’ technical skills, the group seeks to generate support within the local community for preserving wildlife. The preserve’s 12 rangers are employed by the two villages that own the land. And AWF has sponsored projects such as a primary school and computer lab for neighboring communities.
Progress, though, has stalled. In the 18 months before Honeyguide started its anti-poaching efforts on Manyara in August 2013, the ranch lost 25 elephants. During Honeyguide’s first 17 months of operation, no poaching occurred. But in the last seven months, five elephants have been killed, the most recent in July.
Dukuru Mollel, a ranger at Manyara Ranch, says that although the two neighboring villages have benefited materially from conservation efforts, there are five other nearby villages that have not. Even in the two villages that have seen direct gains, not everyone is convinced of the benefits of protecting wildlife. Two recently arrested poachers came from one of the two villages that owns the Manyara Ranch Conservancy.
“Money is the issue. They are approached by people outside the community to help with poaching,” says Mollel. “Most are uneducated and can’t go back to school. It’s hard for them to find other ways of living.”
‘They may have started wrong, but we all make mistakes.’
founder, African Wildlife Trust
For Tate, repairing the damage to VETPAW has proved difficult. He has hired a public relations firm to manage interactions with the media. While he hopes to one day return to Tanzania, for the near future he’s considering projects in other African countries.
He has also remained loyal to Johnson, keeping her as part of VETPAW. She was unavailable to provide a comment for this article, but Tate continues to stress that her remarks do not reflect her values or those of VETPAW. During their time in the field, Tate says, she was passionate about the mission and a vital member of the team.
Pratik Patel, a prominent conservationist in Tanzania, met Tate by chance on a flight in the country shortly before VETPAW was kicked out. Tate volunteered to help at an elephant orphanage run by the African Wildlife Trust, of which Patel is the founder. Patel has since become an advocate for bringing Tate and his colleagues back to Tanzania, only this time as part of a larger organization and with greater oversight.
“The concept is a very good concept. They may have started wrong, but we all make mistakes and learn from it,” says Patel. “Let’s bring them back and take it a step at a time.”