In northern South Africa, former soldiers are fighting both the illegal wildlife trade and the twin scourges of unemployment and PTSD
The sun has set over the scrubby savannah. The moon is full. It is time for Ryan Tate and his men to go to work. In camouflage fatigues, they check their weapons and head to the vehicles.
Somewhere beyond the ring of light cast by the campfire, out in the vast dark expanse of thornbushes, baobab trees, rocks and grass, are the rhinos. Somewhere, too, may be the poachers who will kill them to get their precious horns.
The job of Tate, a 32-year-old former US Marine, and the group of US military veterans he has assembled in a remote private reserve in the far north of South Africa is simple: keep the rhinos and the rest of the game in the bush around their remote base alive.
The men are not mercenaries, or park rangers they work for Tates Veterans Empowered To Protect African Wildlife (Vetpaw), a US-based nonprofit organisation funded by private donations. All have seen combat, often with elite military units, in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
Though equipped with vehicles, trail bikes, assault rifles, sniper suits and radios, the most important weapons in the war against poaching, Tate believes, are the skills and experiences his team gained on successive deployments in conflict zones over the last decade and a half.
We are here for free. We are not going anywhere. Whether it is cold or hot, day or night … we want to work with anyone who needs help, Tate says.
The initiative is not without controversy. Some experts fear green militarisation and an arms race between poachers and gamekeepers. Others believe deploying American former soldiers to fight criminals in South Africa undermines the troubled countrys already fragile state.
Though rhino horns are made of keratin, the same substance as fingernails, a kilo is worth up to $65,000. The demand comes from East Asia, where rhino horn is seen as a potent natural medicine and status symbol, and is met by international networks linking dirt-poor villages in southern Africa with traffickers and eventually buyers. Patchy law enforcement, corruption and poverty combine to exacerbate the problem.
In South Africa, home to 80% of the worlds wild rhinos, only 13 were poached in 2007. In 2015, the total was nearly 1,200, though losses have declined slightly since.
These criminal gangs are armed to the teeth, well-funded and part of transnational syndicates who will stop at nothing, a South African government spokesman said in February.
Tate founded Vetpaw after seeing a documentary about poaching and the deaths of park rangers in Africa. His team now work on a dozen private game reserves covering a total of around 200,000 hectares in Limpopo, the countrys northernmost province. One advantage for local landowners is the protection heavily armed combat veterans provide against the violent break-ins feared by so many South Africans, particularly on isolated rural farmsteads. The team has also run training courses for local guides and security staff.
But if one aim of Vetpaw is to counter poaching, another is to help combat veterans in the US, where former servicemen suffer high levels of unemployment and mental illness.
Everyone gets PTSD when they come back from war you are never going to get the brotherhood, the intensity again [There are] all these veterans with billions of dollars of training and the government doesnt use them. I saw a need in two places and just put them together, says Tate.