A Marine’s Fight Against Poaching

By Andrew Thomas
Andrew Thomas
Andrew Thomas
September 2, 2019 Updated: January 31, 2020

Poaching is a severe problem in Africa that is not only cruel to the wildlife, but also provides revenue for organized crime syndicates and violent extremists. One United States Marine saw the barbarity of the practice, and felt compelled to do something. While he’s no stranger to battle, now he has a new mission ahead of him. This is his fight against poaching.

Ryan Tate was always patriotic growing up in Tampa, Florida. Furthermore, the young man needed structure and discipline in his life. Moreover, when he was 16 years old he watched the second plane hit the World Trade Center on television. After witnessing that cowardly attack, his desire to join the Marine Corps was solidified.

Tate wanted to be on the front lines, and enlisted in the Marine Corps as an infantryman. During his service, he was deployed to both Iraq and southeast Asia.

“My experience in the Marine Corps was amazing. It set the tone for the rest of my life. It made me into a man. It made me who I am today,” Tate told The Epoch Times.

Poaching and Barbarity

Tate learned some tough, valuable lessons at a young age. He witnessed the worst and best in humanity. He witnessed acts of valor and heroism, but he also learned that life is unfair.

While Tate was in the Marine Corps he learned leadership skills, how to adapt, how to innovate, and how to improvise without a lot of resources.

After serving on active duty from 2003 until 2008, Tate began working for the U.S. Department of State. He worked on security details for both foreign and domestic diplomats. However, he didn’t find his work fulfilling.

Tate with a rhino
Ryan Tate with a rhino. (Courtesy of Veterans Empowered to Protect African Wildlife)

Tate found his calling after watching a wildlife documentary on CNN. The documentary depicted an elephant laid out in the middle of a road. Poachers had cut the face off of the elephant, and Tate was immediately glued to the screen.

The next piece of footage featured a rhino that had been tranquilized by poachers. The poachers had sawed its face off, and the rhino woke up. The veterinarians tried to get to her, but she was scared and wouldn’t let them get close. Tragically, the rhino bled out.

“I cried like a baby for a week. I called out of work. I was so struck by this. It was a 9/11 moment for me. It was a moment where I knew that if I didn’t take action it would be one of the biggest regrets of my life, and I didn’t want to live with that,” Tate recalled.

A New Mission

Tate began suggesting wildlife protection as a U.S. government proposal, and he had his career threatened by an assistant secretary of state. However, he wasn’t going to let some bureaucrat stop him from pursuing something he was passionate about.

Tate resigned from the U.S. Department of State in March 2014, and launched his non-profit called Veterans Empowered to Protect African Wildlife also known by the acronym VETPAW.

Tate with a team member
Ryan Tate (L) with one of the veterans on his team. (Courtesy of Veterans Empowered to Protect African Wildlife)

He and other veterans began to train, advise, and assist local park rangers and conservationist in Africa. The goal is to pass along skills that will help keep rangers and conservationists alive, while increasing the survival rate of the wildlife.

Tate and his team train the rangers in battlefield medical skills, night operations, area of operation management, leadership skills, and marksmanship.

One of the biggest challenges is that rangers patrol massive reserves. Some of them are a quarter of million acres, with 10 to 20 rangers responsible for the whole area.


Tate and his team developed a database of relevant information, and can put an overlay on the map of the area of the reserve. That way they can narrow down as best they can the highest risk areas for poachers. They gather information from past poaching incidents, analyze foot prints, and record the locations of cut fences.

VETPAW also employs a technique called human terrain mapping and behavior pattern recognition, which teaches rangers how to think like a criminal or a poacher.

Tate with a rhino
Ryan Tate is on a mission to combat poachers. (Courtesy of Veterans Empowered to Protect African Wildlife)

That way rangers can recognize sketchy behavior and take action. In fact, the rangers were able to recognize and apprehend eight poachers after the first training session. The teaching also goes both ways.

“We learn equally as much from the rangers as they learn from us. They’ve lived in these communities forever,” Tate explained.

Tate and his team adapt the skills they learned in the military to the mission of the rangers. VETPAW teaches rangers patrol tactics and battlefield medicine, and how to adapt those tactics to anti-poaching.

The Missions

One of VETPAW’s first missions was called Operation Tanzania. The goal was to help the Tanzanian government develop an intelligence-based task force to combat poaching. Then the goal was for the park rangers to go after the big poaching kingpins, with advice and support and from the veterans at VETPAW. The operation resulted in numerous arrests of suspected poachers, including some of the biggest players involved in the criminal network.

VETPAW’s next mission was Operation Rhino Shield. The operation was intended to repopulate a sanctuary in the Limpopo province in South Africa. The team moved black rhinos into the area, and that area had not had black rhinos in over 200 years. Now, there is a growing population of both black and white rhinos.

VETPAW’s most recent mission is the Force for Nature Campaign, which is an effort to relocate black and white rhinos from high-risk areas into safe sanctuaries. The goal is that they will eventually move back to their original home, and repopulate other areas.

Tate with an elephant
Ryan Tate with an elephant. (Courtesy of Veterans Empowered to Protect African Wildlife)

Not only are VETPAW and the rangers and conservationists working to protect wildlife, they’re also trying to disrupt the criminal organizations and violent extremists who profit from the poaching industry. Groups like Boko Haram and Al-Shabab support many of their operations with poaching.

Furthermore, many countries in Africa rely on a large tourism industry. Without wildlife, the tourism industry declines. In turn, the economic instability that results makes communities vulnerable to violent extremists.

For Tate, saving these animals has helped save him too.

“In my honest opinion these animals saved my life. I took all my PTSD and emotions from war and tucked them in a jar, and I screwed it on as tight as I could. When I saw that rhino with its face cut off, and I started crying like a baby, that animal basically opened up that jar of emotions that I had, and forced me to deal with it,” Tate said.

Andrew Thomas
Andrew Thomas