These U.S. War Veterans Are Now Fighting for African Rhinos

As home to about 80% of the world's rhino, South Africa is on the front line against poachers who slaughter the animal for its horn, which sells for an estimated $65,000 a kilogram. Rangers use military-style rifles, tracking devices and sniffer dogs to pursue and deter poachers. Photographs by Kevin Sutherland/Bloomberg

The Veterans Empowered to Protect African Wildlife is a New York-based NGO that sends army veterans, many of whom fought in Iraq and Afghanistan and are now struggling to find civilian work, to support and train South African rangers. Founded by former marine Ryan Tate, VETPAW teaches skills including marksmanship, patrolling and community outreach.

The fight is having some success: there were 702 rhinos poached between January and July of 2016, down 11% from the year-earlier period, according to the most recent data from the South African government. Poaching peaked at 1,215 in 2014, up from just 13 seven years earlier.

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    VETPAW provides meaningful employment to veterans post 9/11. Using their military expertise, they train and support local anti-poaching rangers. 

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    A white rhino in the scrubland in Limpopo Province. During 2015 some 1,175 rhinos were poached in South Africa, according to the Department of Environmental Affairs.

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    As well as training in patrolling strategies, rangers will also gather and analyze intelligence in their quest to conserve the endangered species.

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    Each Ranger carries weapons, tools and communication devices in their fight.

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    The World Wildlife Federation (WWF) states that illegal wildlife trade is the fourth largest illicit trade behind drugs, people smuggling and counterfeiting, worth an estimated £4 billion ($5 billion) annually.

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    The price of rhino horn is estimated to command approximately $65,000 per kilogram on the black market. Photographer: Aaron Tam/AFP/Getty Images

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    Former marine Ryan Tate set up VETPAW after witnessing the devastation of elephant and rhino poaching, and to let veterans leverage their skills in a civilian setting.

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    VETPAW not only provides conservation education and poacher rehabilitation, but also alternative employment opportunities tied to ranger programs and agricultural initiatives.

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    Poaching escalated during the 1970s and 1980s as demand grew for rhino horn. The number of rhinos poached in South Africa has increased by 9,000% since 2007.