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.
As recently as March, U.S. Marines and sailors instructed Tanzanian rangers on patrolling techniques, night operations and small unit tactics as part of a $40 million, four-year, nationwide wildlife conservation program. In South Africa, former Australian special operations sniper Damien Mander founded the International Anti-Poaching Foundation to provide training to park rangers.
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.
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.”
Read more: america.aljazeera.com
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