A six-person team with VETPAW — Veterans Empowered to Protect African Wildlife — was ordered to leave the East Africa nation following a burst of controversy surrounding the group, according to multiple local media outlets in Tanzania's largest city, Dar es Salaam.
According to VETPAW posts and comments online, the team had been accompanied by an Animal Planet film crew that was producing a show on the group. A spokesman for the network did not return repeated calls for comment.
In a recent press conference surrounded by dozens of fatigue-clad Tanzanian park rangers whom VETPAW had come to train, the head of the country's Ministry of Tourism and Natural Resources said he was "saddened" by recent posts that have been circulating widely online.
Those have included pictures of "tactical model" Kinessa Johnson — a former Army diesel mechanic now with VETPAW — posing with various weapons and gear.
Most, if not all, of those pictures appear to have been taken before her tour to Tanzania but have been posted recently in the group's social media accounts, spurring a spate of blogger and media interest.
"Meet the Badass, Tattooed Army Vet Who's Hunting Down Poachers in Africa" was typical of many headlines.
Overblown media hype for a group that was just there to train, not fight? Maybe, but then some of her actual comments surfaced.
'Kill some bad guys'
"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."
More recent posts from the team only added fuel to the perception that VETPAW was downrange in the hunt for the hunters.
But according to the group's website, "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."
Marine Medal of Honor recipient Dakota Meyer and retired Navy Rear Adm. John "Jay" H. Bowling III are listed as serving on VETPAW's advisory board.
Critics, however, say team members were at best hyping their actual mission in Tanzania in order to drum up sponsors and publicity for their TV show — or worse, were completely out of their depth in a region and situation they know little about.
"They're doing far more harm than good," former SEAL Team Six operator Craig Sawyer told OFFduty.
Sawyer, who has extensive experience in anti-poaching efforts and was a team leader on Animal Planet's 2013 miniseries "Battleground: Rhino Wars," says VETPAW's intentions may be good, "but they're actually hurting the cause."
He's been a vocal critic. In one recent Facebook post, Sawyer blasted VETPAW for siphoning off support from groups who have been working in the region for years.
Critics of VETPAW say the group is doing more harm than good.
Photo Credit: TracerX
"It needed to be said and denounced," added Kurt Steiner in a comment to Sawyer's posting.
Steiner, a law enforcement manager for the South Africa-based African Parks Network 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 at least one recent interview, Johnson has tried to walk back her earlier comments, telling a Seattle TV station that she's not an actual "poacher hunter" but does work closely with them on operations.
"I'm a technical adviser to anti-poaching rangers, so I patrol routinely with them and also assist in intelligence operations," she said. "Most of the time anyone that is in a 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."
Sawyer also has a more personal beef with another member of the VETPAW crew.
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.
"We had to fire him," said Sawyer, who accused Ebrahimzadeh of being a deadbeat on the team and, he believes now, a drug addict.
A Jan. 19 TMZ report said Ebrahimzadeh was under investigation when police found ketamine, a powerful tranquilizer, and a bag with white powder in his home after his ex-girlfriend filed a police report claiming he'd punched and kicked her during a trip to Australia.
He denied the abuse charges and said he was cleared to have the drugs by the DEA.
A spokeswoman for the group said none of the team members were available to comment on any of the controversy. In fact, she said, she's not even sure where they are.
Where are they now?
The team had been in Tanzania since March and was slated to stay through much of June.
The last of the VETPAW team members are believed to have left the country by May 5, but the group has largely gone dark online.
A U.S.-based spokesperson for VETPAW said she wasn't sure what was going on and hadn't heard from the team in nearly two weeks.
The wife of VETPAW president and co-founder Ryan Tate questioned the local reports. "As far I know, they're still out in the bush doing their jobs. I think I would know if they were coming home."
According to his LinkedIn profile, Tate spent four years in the Marine Corps as an infantryman based at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, before leaving the service in 2007. Starting in 2010, he worked for the State Department in "diplomatic security" in New York City until last summer.
"I have no sense of what they were doing," said one U.S. embassy official in Tanzania. "As a mission and embassy, we do a lot of work in anti-poaching, but we have not had anything to do with VETPAW."
Rosie Plaia, founder of another aid group with years of experience in anti-poaching efforts throughout Africa, said she reached out to Tate and others in the group as soon as she got word VETPAW was in Tanzania a few months ago.
"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."
But her optimism with VETPAW didn't last long. "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."
She said Tate's response was that even bad publicity is good publicity because it brings awareness.
"I said, 'No, sometimes bad publicity is just bad. And this is one of those times.' "
"Can't say I'm surprised that the Tanzanian authorities took offense given how they appeared to cast themselves online and in interviews," says Kathleen Garrigan, a spokesperson for African Wildlife Foundation.
And, of course, protecting endangered wildlife is an emotionally charged topic to begin with.
Stopping poaching is an important part of the puzzle, she said. "But for every poacher you arrest or even kill, there's 10 more behind them."
There is a sense among many, she said, that "time is running out, we don't have time for pleasantries, and let's just go kill the bad guys."
"Well, it's not that easy. I don't know if it's a little naiveté on their part, or they're misleading the public or it's some kind of PR stunt. But it doesn't help."