American vets travel to Africa to combat wildlife poachers, and it’s a PR nightmare

VETPAW goes to Africa, then gets kicked out of Africa.


Curt Hopkins


Published May 22, 2015   Updated May 28, 2021, 6:48 pm CDT

Kinessa Johnson is all over the news. Profiles have been written about the young, attractive, tattooed army vet in the U.K.’s Independent, the New York Daily News, German’s Bild, on Bam Margera’s site, and on Her story and photos have proliferated from one end of social media to the other.

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Johnson is the new face of Veterans Empowered to Protect African Wildlife, a group that purports to travel to Africa and, in Johnson’s words at a gun industry SHOT Show last year, “to do some anti-poaching, kill some bad guys, and do some good.” Or, as Johnson said in a different SHOT clip about poachers (subsequently pulled from YouTube), “We’re going to go out and hunt them down.”

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VETPAW’s promotional campaign images feature Johnson in tactical gear, carrying a machine gun, on the verge, one supposes, of killing some of those bad guys. The problem is, it’s stunt casting and none of the news organizations seem to have looked past the image.

Some military and former military members did however. The publication Warrior quotes Former Navy Seal Craig Sawyer on his Facebook page as criticizing the professionalism of the group’s campaign, its qualifications, and noting that Johnson served in the motor pool in Afghanistan. In her Reddit AMA Johnson said she was a diesel mechanic.

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Service is service, but the campaign, and Johnson’s own words (before she began to backpedal on them) imply that she, and VETPAW, are more Rambo than Marlin Perkins.

Johnson subsequently explained, “Most of the time anyone that is in a (wildlife) reserve with a weapon is considered a threat and can be shot if rangers feel threatened. Our goal is to prevent trigger-pulling through strategic movements and methods of prevention.”

The problem is not simply that the group’s marketing imagery and Johnson’s public commentary gave an inaccurate impression of who they were and what they did. It’s that the overwhelming majority of press that wrote about Johnson and VETPAW were docile and droolingly adulatory about the young lady, and that absence of skepticism extended to the group’s mission and motives.

This month, VETPAW was ejected from Tanzania, the East African country whose rangers its six-person team were allegedly there to train. They had first arrived in the country in March. 

The images the group used of Johnson and her aggressive comments made the trip a PR disaster, not just for VETPAW but for Lazaro Nyalandu, Tanzania’s minister of tourism and natural resources, who said he was “saddened” at the situation and banned the group from further activities in his country.

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The fact they showed up with a film crew from Animal Planet may have sent a message of Africa as entertainment, wildlife as spectacle. Oh, yeah. Did we not say that? They showed up with a TV crew.

A U.S. diplomatic official in Tanzania told the Military Times, “I have no sense of what they were doing. As a mission and embassy, we do a lot of work in anti-poaching, but we have not had anything to do with VETPAW.”

In a message to the Daily Dot, Sawyer called their presence in Tanzania and subsequent expulsion a “social oil spill.”

“The thing that matters most to me about that debacle,” he said, “is the reaction from the real counter-poachers in Africa who were begging VETPAW to stop the mockery they were making of the real cause, but VETPAW arrogantly ignored them until it all blew up in public.”

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But even more egregious than the viral lust and laziness of recent coverage of Johnson and VETPAW are the prejudices that powered the stories. First, there is a woeful ignorance of the military. Special Forces, though important, are a very small part of the full scope of the American military. 

Then, there is the common wisdom regarding Africa.

Thanks to Bono and Angelina Jolie, and a self-proliferating aid industry, a press that has systematically made the Africa bureau extinct, we (we being Americans and Europeans primarily) perceive Africa as in perpetual dire straits. That, apparently, includes wildlife management and defense.

Africa has a surfeit of men, and some women, with extensive real-world military experience, from the South African Defense Forces to UNITA to FRELIMO and RENATO to MKI. Armed rangers are an established element of African parks, police, and military organization and protect Africa’s heritage at great personal risk.

This is not to say there are not excellent people and groups from outside Africa assisting in wildlife management and anti-poaching programs on the continent as well. But VETPAW’s questionable positioning, along with the sensationalism of journalists who demand too little of themselves and the publications who demand too little of their journalists, may have had a negative effect on a complex issue with far-reaching consequences.

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Like drugs, without successfully addressing demand—in this case for elephant ivory, rhino horn, exotic pets, and folk medicines—stopping the crime itself is even harder, and more dangerous.

It’s important to remember that when it comes to poaching, the animals who die often include humans.

Protecting man and animal alike against the criminals who kill for cash is as much an avocation as it is a vocation. Ill-advised stunts like this one, carried by a credulous press and a sensation-seeking public, run the risk of stripping too much of the dignity from people like Stephen Midzi, a ranger at the Shangoni Post in South Africa’s Kruger National Park.

“Being a ranger was not a choice but a calling,” he told National Geographic. “I was born for this, so had to fulfill what has already been written in my book of life.”

VETPAW and Kinessa Johnson could not be reached for comment.

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Photo via nechakoriver/Flickr (CC BY ND 2.0) 

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*First Published: May 22, 2015, 12:39 pm CDT