There are two kinds of people who stand up for the world’s critically endangered animals, such as rhinos: Those who talk, and those who do.
“Doing” is preferable — no news flash there — but direct action has a way of provoking controversy, even at the best of times.
And not much is more controversial these days than the use of heavily armed guards, many of them U.S. army veterans recently emerged from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, in the bush war against poachers in private game reserves in South Africa, and a handful of other countries.
The public controversy has simmered since 2013, when an Animal Planet docuseries Battleground: Rhino Wars — the Discovery Communications-owned cable channel’sfollow-up to its popular Whale Wars series — introduced ordinary TV viewers to the concept of mercenaries in the service of wildlife conservation.
An expansive exposé in the UK Guardian newspaper last month briefly touched on the somewhat uncomfortable optics — uncomfortable to some, anyway, especially in post-apartheid South Africa — of heavily armed outsiders, mostly white, imported to combat the problem of poaching by local, mainly black Africans.
Like much of The Guardian’s journalism, the exposé — by veteran Guardian Africa correspondent Jason Burke — weighed different points-of-view, and raised issues the casual observer might not have realized. One unexpected factor, for example, is the reality that many of the U.S. army veterans involved are recovering emotionally and physically from post-traumatic stress. By fighting for a cause they believe in, by putting their lives on the line — once again, but this time for critically endangered animals — many of these veterans see the initiative as a way to ease back into civilian life after weeks, months and even years of intensive firefights in Afghanistan.
“Green militarization,” as it’s called, has its critics. The scale of the crisis facing Africa’s rhinos is clear to almost everyone, though, especially in a world where rhino horn, which is made primarily of keratin — the same substance as fingernails — is now worth $65,000 USD per kilo on the black market, according to recent conservative estimates.
In 2007, a mere 10 years ago, no more than a dozen rhinos were poached in South Africa. In 2015 alone, according to The Guardian, that number jumped to 1,200.
Given that a rhino’s gestation period is 16 months, and given that a rhino has just one baby at birth, one doesn’t need to be a mathematician to see that the numbers are untenable.
South Africa is critical to the species’ survival because the country is home to 80% of the world’s surviving wild rhinos.
At the time Battleground: Rhino Wars debuted on U.S. television, Animal Planet president and general manager Marjorie Kaplan told an assembled group of reporters and TV critics in Pasadena, Calif. that more than 100 African park rangers were killed the previous year while trying to protect the continent’s wildlife reserves.
“Make no mistake, this is war,” Kaplan told the assembled reporters. “The men and women protecting rhinos on the ground in South Africa are outgunned and outmanned. This is not about threatened habitat. This is not about human encroachment. This is pure greed, and pure ignorance. There is absolutely no justification for these creatures to be dying. The people who are risking their lives to to protect them are heroes.”
Former US Navy SEAL Craig “Sawman” Sawyer, one of the original team leaders in the anti-poaching initiative and one of the leading voices behind Animal Planet’s Rhino Wars, said the poaching problem has many faces. It isn’t just about impoverished locals trying to make a living.
“It’s a mix,” Sawyer said. “It’s the locals. It’s an international problem. This is major money, a multibillion-dollar business going on. With each rhino horn being worth up to half a million dollars, it’s easy to see the lure there. So what we have to do is change the incentive. We need to come up with a multifaceted approach to address the problem. Because this species is on the brink of extinction. They’ve been around for 50 million years, and in the past 50 years alone, man has almost completely wiped them out. We’re at the redline crisis at this point.”
A number of poachers caught in the Rhino Wars net said they wanted to get out of the criminal life, but had a hard time finding jobs. Some of those same ex-poachers have since been hired by ranchers to help protect the dwindling rhino herds, as they have intimate, first-hand knowledge of how poaching is done and the most effective way to prevent it.
Sawyer said action beats words every time.
“In our role here, we have an opportunity to directly address the physical problem of poaching,” he said. “With our backgrounds, coming from the special operations community, that’s what we can contribute. Our fight is travelling halfway around the globe and risking our lives personally to join the South Africans in their fight to save not only a national resource but a global resource. We’re all losing our rhino, okay? We’re over there fighting this fight to try to save the rhino and also raise awareness. If we take it to them, maybe we can help spread the word. Maybe we can raise global awareness and bring some pressure against this threat to the rhino, and actually maybe even save the species.”
Outfits such as the US-based nonprofit organization Veterans Empowered to Protect African Wildlife (Vetpaw) serve a two-fold purpose: to draw a line in the sand against the wholesale slaughter of rhinos, and to help former combat veterans in the US find a renewed purpose in life. The Guardian noted that many former servicemen suffer high levels of unemployment and mental illness — PTSD by any other name. Ex-servicemen often struggle to reclaim the sense of brotherhood they got from combat. Despite millions of dollars spent on training — billions of dollars, even — the US government doesn’t use them again. Helping protect wildlife affords them a renewed sense of meaning and self-worth.
Vetpaw founder and squad leader Ryan Tate, a former US Marine, told The Guardian that he selected combat veterans precisely because they are disciplined enough, experienced, battle-hardened and well trained enough not to use lethal force unless absolutely necessary. Poachers are apprehended in the act, and then turned over to local police. Alive.
Another Vetpaw commando, a British-born veteran who served 15 years in the US elite special forces until last year, told The Guardian that the rhino wars are textbook counterinsurgency — about winning hearts and minds on the ground, rather than actual firefights.
“Let’s not sugarcoat it,” Sawyer said, back when Rhino Wars first aired on US television. “We’ve got hardcore crime syndicates coming in from Mozambique, armed with AK-47s, not only slaughtering an entire species but anyone who gets in their way. More than 100 rangers have been killed trying to protect the rhino, whether they were armed or not. This war is on. And we can either sit back and go, ‘Isn’t that unfortunate? We don’t have the heart to deal with it.’ Or we can pick up arms and go and face the enemy and tell them, ‘Hell, no.’”