VETPAW, a nonprofit group dedicated to employing U.S. veterans in the fight against poachers in Africa, is renowned by its supporters for re-purposing experienced soldiers towards a worthy cause.
But in its well-meaning war against illegal hunters, the group is also taking fire from veterans and conservationists who say they are dangerously out of its depth.
VETPAW (Veterans Empowered to Protect African Wildlife) was founded by Marine Corps veteran Ryan Tate. Tate, like many veterans returning from deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan in the post-9/11 era, struggled to find a purpose as a civilian.
It wasn’t until a trip to Africa that Tate realized the skills that he and other veterans they picked up in the armed forces could be put to good use. Tate saw how park rangers struggled to protect elephants and rhinos from poachers, and came to realize that veterans could help the good guys get an upper hand.
VETPAW dedicated itself to training anti-poaching rangers, helping them sharpen their marksmanship skills, stay efficient, and work as effectively as a well-honed military unit. The organization grew quickly, their ranks swelled by former U.S. veterans excited by the chance to make an impact.
Kinessa Johnson, the group’s first woman and one of its most outspoken and prominent members, joined in late 2014, helping raise the group’s profile. VETPAW also expanded its technological resources, teaming up with Six Maritime to deploy drones that can keep an eye on suspicious behavior from the air.
But as the group has rapidly grown in size and ambition, its also attracted criticism from groups already entrenched in the war against poaching. VETPAW went viral early this year as photos of Kinessa Johnson from her earlier days a gun company model were shared online, often labeling her a “poacher hunter.”
These posts attracted praise online, but troubled others who believed it misrepresented the role the group played in Africa.
While VETPAW’s site only claims the group helps build “capacity and relationship building in East Africa,” and only aids anti-poaching rangers, their recent claims have come off as more bombastic. “We’re going there to do some anti-poaching. Kill some bad guys and do some good,” said Johnson in a video from January 2015, in advance of VETPAW preparing to depart for Africa.
Those types of stories, portraying VETPAW as directly tracking down poachers have served to drum up interest in the group, but they have come with a cost. The group’s image as personally apprehending or even killing poachers, boosted by those within and outside VETPAW, may have contributed to the group being kicked out of Tanzania in May.
The group has also dealt with criticism from veterans themselves, who’ve accused the group of being more flash than substance, and being unprepared to work in the complicated world of anti-poaching in Africa.
“They’re doing far more harm than good,” said former SEAL Team Six operator Craig Sawyer, in an interview with OFFduty. Sawyer, who starred in the Animal Planet 2013 series “Battleground: Rhino Wars,” says VETPAW may get the most media attention, but they often take away support from far more capable groups with greater experience in the region.
“The endangered animals need REAL defense, not tinseltown posers who make a mockery of the real cause and recklessly inflict damage upon those who do the real protection work,” Sawyer wrote in one particulary scathing Facebook post.
Accusations like those have forced VETPAW to backpedal on their media image as “poacher hunters.” In an interview with a Seattle TV station, Johnson said she was a “technical adviser” to anti-poaching rangers, but didn’t directly hunt down poachers.
For the moment, VETPAW seems to have taken something from the hard-charging media profile it acquired earlier this year, now seeking to maintain its tough image without rubbing its allies in conservation the wrong way.
But while VETPAW may be more careful in its messaging, the group stands behind its original mission – allowing U.S. veterans to continue the fight for something that matters.
“It’s just like serving in the military. You have that passion and heart for what you did,” said Johnson in an interview with KING 5 News last month. “It may not be a person that we’re fighting for or remembering – it’s animals that very well could go extinct.”