To protect endangered rhinos, U.S. Army veterans answer a new call to arms

June 7, 2017, 9:41 a.m.
Two rhinos in grass
Photo: MHGALLERY /iStockPhoto

Former soldiers are battling poachers and their own personal demons in South Africa.

Ryan Tate, a former U.S. Marine, founded a nonprofit group called Veterans Empowered To Protect African Wildlife (VETPAW). The organization puts ex-soldiers to work protecting rhinos, something that meets several important needs at once: guarding an endangered species against poachers by people skillfully trained in combat, and giving soldiers a personal weapon against two significant problems many face after military service: unemployment and post-traumatic stress disorder.

“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 tells the Guardian.

The Guardian reports:

The initiative is not without controversy. Some experts fear “green militarisation” and an arms race between poachers and gamekeepers. Others believe deploying American former soldiers to fight criminals in South Africa undermines the troubled country’s already fragile state.

But the scale of the challenge of protecting South Africa’s rhinos is clear to everyone, with a rise in poaching in recent years threatening to reverse conservation gains made over decades.

Rhinos are still being poached at an alarming rate, even though the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) international ban on rhino horn is in full effect.

"The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Species Survival Commission's African Rhino Specialist Group (AfRSG) recently reported that the number of African rhinos killed by poachers had increased for the sixth year in a row, with at least 1,338 rhinos killed by poachers across Africa in 2015," notes AllAfrica. This is the highest level since the rhino poaching crisis began to increase in 2008. Since then, poachers have killed more than 6,000 rhinos in South Africa alone.

Wild rhinos can use any help they can get, including help from ex-military soldiers looking to do some good in the world and regain a sense of purpose and place in the process.