[VETERANS EMPOWERED TO PROTECT AFRICAN WILDLIFE]
It is a few degrees below the comfort zone on the border of Zimbabwe and South Africa. It is also around fifteen minutes to “Who cares?” Time does not matter here — only life matters. We are sitting around the campfire at VETPAW’s basecamp, watching the orange flames dancing on dense African wood. It burns great but it is hard to cut, even though we didn’t have to; we just collected the arm-thick pieces some young elephant bulls had ripped off the neighboring trees while testing their powers.
Above us, the Milky Way’s overbearing grip on the night sky will humble you to nothing as our not-even-worth-a-mention sized sun hides out in the suburbs of this galaxy. We are literally in the “galactic boonies.” We are not even a speck of dust — mind-blowing numbers, staggering proportions — yet we have the power to perceive it all.
The starlight we see has traveled — sometimes even billions of years — across space. The photons that left those stars eons ago now explode across our retinas, absorbed by molecules that chemically trigger a signal that is transmitted to our optic nerves. In the process, our eyes have caught those particles of distant suns and they have become a part of us. Life is what gives us that power. Life is everything, but it is short and fragile. Africa has the uncanny ability to snap this into focus, even for the most self-absorbed person.
I have been out here for a week now, embedded in an anti-poaching team and having an amazing time, but tonight is different. Things just got real. Across from me sits Ryan Tate, a thirty-something former Marine and the founding father of VETPAW, and he is not exactly in his typically jovial mood. News has arrived that just a dozen miles from here, poachers have attacked a reserve and brutally slaughtered three rhinos. Unfortunately, they were not under VETPAW’s protection.
Ryan begins to speak to me. “There are so few of the rhinos left that they are known by name. Every one of them is important and has a personality, just like your dogs and your cats back home. These animals are our friends. How would you feel if someone jumped in your backyard, wounded your dog and hacked his face off, then left him there to bleed to death? Would you be enraged?”
In addition to the reserves, even the rhino orphanages are now being attacked. Poachers beat up or kill the rangers, and they even kill the baby rhinos for their tiny nobs, which couldn’t even be called horns yet. It is brutal, it is sad, and it is inhumane.
Seeing these war-hardened combat vets staring into the fire with tears in their eyes is an amazing sight. Their silence is a thin layer of ice over a river of rage below. No poacher has ever crossed VETPAW’s red line. They had better pray that they never do ….
These men probably caught my gaze resting on a rifle as a voice scatters my thoughts: “We are not here to kill poachers. All life is precious. We are here to protect this land and the animals on it. Our response will always be appropriate to the situation presented to us — nothing more, but nothing less. We drew our red line; it’s where our private reserve’s fence is,” says Jeff, the anti-poaching team’s leader, a no-nonsense former Green Beret. As he jumps on his bike he yells back, “The moon is up; we are going out on patrol.” Mark, who could be the camouflaged Santa Claus for the children of the bush — especially if you see how good he is to the villagers — quietly follows him. Their bikes disappear into the night.
It is the full moon, the most dangerous time, since the poachers can see without flashlights, which would give away their presence. The land VETPAW patrols is enormous; it takes hours for the vehicles to circle it. They are looking for breaches in the towering electric fence line, while a helicopter scans for parked vehicles anywhere near the reserve. Poachers have getaway drivers; they need to flee quickly or they wouldn’t get far on foot in the deep bush of Africa — and sure enough, a vehicle is spotted.
As we are patrolling quickly through the teeth-rattling terrain in 4x4s that have enough light bars to remake the movie “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” we have to stop to check out a car changing a flat tire too close to one of the reserve’s fence lines. I can hear the chopper and see another VETPAW cruiser cutting through the bush behind us. Then two more dirt bikes show up. I feel like I’m in a movie — the situation is lit AF.
As Ryan approaches the vehicle, I can tell he has done this a thousand times.
Imagine these highly skilled operators going home from international conflicts, where they were invaluable to their missions and to the men next to them. They were fighters, technicians, engineers and diplomats all in one, and they can’t fully reintegrate into civilian life because no matter what they do, they will always be underutilized. Part of post-traumatic stress disorder is a feeling of no longer being needed, of no longer being a part of a team and a part of something that is important. VETPAW fills that void — it is therapeutic, the missions are complex, the necessary skills are high level, and at the end of the day, it is an indisputably righteous cause.
VETPAW does a lot of good with one swing. “You need more men out here,” I say to Ryan.
“We do have a lot of resumes,” he responds, “but as with every mission, this one has specific requirements. You have to be the right person for this job. The love of the cause and love for the wildlife are number one. We are not looking for adrenaline junkies to come here for a firefight. In the early days we were happy for all the help and manpower we could get, but soon we realized we had to tighten up our vetting process and exclude any hotheads who’d misrepresent this very complex situation and the work we do here.
One loose mouth can destroy years of hard work and progress. A lot of sensitive politics are involved, and it’s important to understand that we are not headhunters. We are defenders, peacekeepers and educators first and foremost. There is a poaching crisis here that we don’t want to turn into a war. We need snipers who are diplomats first; in need of engineers who can fix the villagers’ wells, too. We need people who will stay calm and collected if bullets are zipping around and who understand that the rounds don’t stop out here — that there are animals in all directions. Unable to just dump mags when we are fired at.”
“So, your strategy is just to keep expanding the land you protect?” I ask.
“Yes, slowly. Since we are a nonprofit, we can only afford operations we can raise the money to fund. We never expand to try to protect more land than we effectively can. We are dependent on both manpower and equipment. The extremes of Africa destroy our gear, so we are constantly in need of new equipment like thermal vision goggles, NVGs, scopes, dirt bikes and off-road vehicles. The gear just falls apart here. We are easily the best test lab on Earth, because if it doesn’t break here, it won’t break anywhere.”
The car near the fence line turns out to be nothing, so we all trickle back to the camp. The next morning on the radio I hear, “Everyone stay calm — the shooting range is going hot.” Without that warning, the first shots would have spun up another tornado of dirt bikes and land cruisers.
It’s range day and codename “Kevin” is running it. You might imagine that he would be an all-American cowboy, since he can shoot the chrome off a dung fly’s ass from a hundred yards out, but actually, he is a tall black man with a British accent. On the day of 9/11, he was a 17-year-old immigrant kid standing in line to get his U.S. citizenship papers while watching the twin towers go down. His next trip was to the recruitment center. That’s right — the immigrant British kid with balls the size of Texas became an American Green Beret. He is now a decorated combat vet still living up to his credo — defending southern Africa’s helpless animals, farmers and local villagers from lawless poachers. When we roll out to the range, we find him reloading magazines with Gavin and Zac.
Back in Afghanistan, an IED took Gavin’s leg, but not his spirit. Even though he could probably still outrun any of us, he can’t serve in the US Army. However, a soldier is always a soldier, so he found himself a good cause to fight for. Zac is a true believer, and he researched and applied to various wildlife reserves, telling them that he was willing to work for no pay. He sent emails that read, “Hello, I’m a US Army vet and I’m willing to fight and lay down my life to defend these animals.” They probably asked themselves, “Who is this crazy American?” However, Zac’s passion caught VETPAW’s attention.
In war, there are two parties fighting; here, one side is defenseless. For the animals, this is genocide. For the landowners and the farmers, these criminals pose a life-threatening situation. Lastly for Africa, its heritage and economy are on the line; if these animals are brought to extinction, both will take a big hit, and nobody will come to see large empty fields.
As I compliment these veterans’ shooting, they tell me to wait until Oz gets back. He is a legendary Green Beret, but now he’s on leave. The VETPAW teams have rotations of a few months on and a few months off. They need it — Africa is intense.
The only permanent inhabitant here is François, a long-bearded South African wildlife expert. He has raised and cared for many rhinos, and everyone here says he is the rhino whisperer. The rhinos run to him when they hear his voice — they are his children.
Later in the afternoon, as I sat under the camp’s giant, 3,000-year-old baobab tree listening to stories, I concluded that while the universe might be finite, human stupidity definitely is not. Rhino horns are nothing but keratin, just like your nasty-ass toenails, yet the black market sells them to the gullible as a cure for cancer or as an aphrodisiac. Does rhino horn powder have medical value? No — absolutely not. Have you ever gotten a boner from biting your nails? However, the con men who push the horn-powder mix it with actual Viagra so it seems like it works, and customers pay high premiums for this hard–to-get black-market substance. The price for this is extreme — around $300,000 for a horn and, ultimately, the extinction of the species. Unless anti-poaching teams like VETPAW get the help that they need, the rhinoceros will disappear.
When my two-week stay is up, I drag my feet and am reluctant to leave. I do not want to lose the keen sense of reality and the heightened awareness this magical environment has given me. It has felt as if time here has slowed down while life has sped up. It seems that a lifetime’s worth of things have happened to me in this place, and I fear this vivid dream full of amazing characters will fade away as soon as I wake back into the noise of civilization. There is an uneasy feeling inside me from having to leave this wolf pack. I will miss the sunsets, the campfires and, of course, the next helicopter raid. I tell myself that I’ll be back — that this is a cause that I truly believe in — and being here in person has only made me want to contribute more.
To learn more about VETPAW and to get involved, visit: www.vetpaw.org and make sure to listen to our podcast, Skillset Live! We always spotlight fighters that live the “alpha lifestyle” in our magazine and on our show!