Perhaps you've heard of VETPAW. It's a compelling story: a group of six United States veterans traveling to Africa to help protect some of the most endagered species in the world. Their mission statement was that they were going to travel to Tanzania, where they would help train local park rangers to help combat poachers. Park rangers in the region have a dangerous job. According to VETPAW, 187 rangers have lost their lives trying to do their job, so the VETPAW staff would provide training in marksmanship, emergency first aid, and counterintelligence.
It also helped that they had a very media-friendly face representing the group. Kinessa Johnson, who served 4 years in Iraq as a diesal mechanic and later worked as a "tactical model" (which, I gather, means that she poses for photos holding guns while flags billow in the background.) She'd been profiled in hyperbolic stories titled "This Woman Hunts People Who Hunt Endangered Animals In Africa" plus a bunch of photos like this:
Well, funny story, they just got kicked out of Tanzania.
The team as there with an Animal Planet film crew to document their efforts for a possible TV show, but Johnson's social media posts stirred up a lot of controversy. On paper, the team was there to train locals, but she said that they were going out to kill poachers.
"We're going there to do some anti-poaching. Kill some bad guys and do some good," Johnson says in one YouTube video posted from the gun industry's annual SHOT Show in Las Vegas in January as VETPAW was preparing to depart for Africa.
In another clip, the heavily tattooed Johnson brags: "We're going to go out, and we're going to hunt them down."
Other posts from the team stated that they were taking direction action against poachers, even though according to VETPAW's mission statement, "VETPAW promotes capacity and relationship building in East Africa, elevating the perception of the military at home and abroad while preventing the extinction of keystone species and ecosystems."
It's not the first time veteran-led antipoaching efforts have been on TV. During 2013, Animal Planet hosted a miniseries "Battleground: Rhino Wars." The show featured ex-Navy SEALS going into the field to help in the fight against poaching. One of the team leaders, Craig Sawyer, has been very vocal against VETPAW. "They're doing far more harm than good."
"It needed to be said and denounced," added Kurt Steiner, who's been working as an anti-poaching specialist since 2009, added that "apart from wasting time and resources," Johnson's comments "hurt every single expat and local over here trying to do a job."
In addition, there are concerns about some of the members of VETPAW's field team. Special Forces medic Azad "Oz Medic" Ebrahimzadeh — still serving in the Army National Guard — was on Sawyer's team featured in "Rhino Wars" and is now with VETPAW. Fired from Sawyer's team for being "a deadbeat," he was also accused of being a drug addict and a domestic abuser.
VETPAW's team has been off social media. They're supposed to all be out of the country now, but people aren't entirely sure where they are.
Rosie Plaia, founder of another aid group with years of experience in anti-poaching efforts throughout Africa, said she reached out to VET PAW when they started.
"When VETPAW started, I had a lot of hope that it would work out for them," she said. "We need veterans for this kind of work and the kind of expertise they bring to the table. When I heard through friends some of the things they were actually doing, when I began to see them posting on social media, I tried to warn them. I told them this would end badly. But they ignored me at every turn."