Nature’s ninjas – the front line in conservation: An interview with Global Conservation Force’s president Mike Veale

As we march into 2018, news from the conservation front-line is bleak. The earth is teetering towards its sixth mass global extinction – this time, as a direct result of human interference. Meanwhile, wildlife is the fourth most profitable trafficking crime after humans, weapons and drugs. And, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has 41,416 species on its red list – of which 16,306 are threatened with extinction.  

Now, more than ever, conservation needs help. But, the good news is, there is still time to make a difference and you can use your hobbies and experience to do so. 

In 2014, enraged by the escalating global poaching crisis, Mike Veale, then a rhino zoo keeper and combat-sport enthusiast, took-up the call to arms.  And, following some intense anti-poaching training with Pro Track, he jumped into the battle’s epicentre – South Africa.

“Because of the rhino crises [my training] was man-tracking and clandestine operations. It was intelligence basics, survival and how to stay in the bush for 28 days at a time. It was; what do you do if you get ambushed by poachers? What do you do if your legs are broken by an elephant? At the same time, I was learning first-hand about all the other rhino poaching crises angles,” Veale told Conservation Careers.

He returned to the US determined to make a difference and subsequently founded the NGO Global Conservation Force (GCF). Veale now divides his time training the front-line against poachers in Africa, while educating and fundraising in the States.

“I wanted to properly represent poaching to the US and the international community. Because, based on what I had seen in the past, I knew rangers did not have a voice. I wanted to make sure the right kind of training and donations were getting to Africa,” he said.

His proudest achievement to-date is training and equipping more than 250 rangers last year.

“Every time we start training the rangers are nervous…Then, suddenly, the same ranger who was scared that his weapon may jam because it is old, or that he will miss – now, has the practice and they can handle this situation… You will see that transformation. Previously, they wouldn’t have approached a suspect vehicle but now they do it, and they do it with confidence,” he said.

Commitment issues? Fight in your spare time

Working in the African bush does not have to be a full-time career. All the team at GCF are unpaid volunteers who use their diverse backgrounds and skillsets to help conservation when they are off duty.

“People need our hobbies and professional skills to be applied as most people are over-worked, over-tapped and under-funded in Africa. They don’t need to be spoon-fed, they need someone to help cover an extra area, or they just need the training, or sometimes they are short of equipment or a connection to a sponsor,” Veale added.

The skills required differs depending on the location. For the field, there is a need for professions such as medics, combat instructors and vet technicians. In the western environment, marketing, web designers and fundraisers all play their part.

“As soon as I got home, I realised that being in California, one out of five friends is a web designer, or in marketing, or a small business owner, or a weapons trainer, or a medic and that there are all these opportunities. All these things that we take for granted are in high demand in Africa,” he said.

GCF then plan around schedules to put the team to use – they will remain in their daily jobs but will provide dates whereby they will work for two weeks to three months in the field.

Currently, the NGO is recruiting medical instructors and other specialist personnel.

“We need people that have been out of their own country to somewhere like Africa but have experience with medical training and we can integrate them. If you are a weapons instructor or you have police or investigation experience, we can use that. The more trained individuals we have, the more places we can impact,” he said.

Furthermore, even those visiting countries as tourists can play their part in conservation. Veale actively encourages tourists to report anything suspicious to the authorities, promoting an app called Wildlife Witness – this allows tourists and locals to easily report wildlife trade by taking a photo, pinning the exact location of an incident and sending it to TRAFFIC, a wildlife trade monitoring network.

Education and the power of media

Training and equipping anti-poachers in Africa is a costly business. And, while GCF do not charge for their services, they do require money to get the equipment and the personnel to the right place at the right time.

This is where fundraising and education become essential. Veale has experience of event management as his mother was the founder of a music production company, which he helped to run at various times.

This knowledge provided the base of his fund-raising platform – organising big events which people would want to attend, regardless of if they knew about the cause, and educating them in the process.

“The reason it was important for me to keep coming back to the US, is that South Africa is where the action is, but the funding, the specialists and the support is California,” he said.

Being media-savvy, Veale understood how working alongside outlets would provide a wider audience. For those who run NGOs, or are looking at starting one, harnessing media and getting your voice heard is essential to drum-up support.

“There are only a handful of people in the world who can properly represent the poaching crisis outside of Africa. And, what I commonly find is these people are usually too stuck into the projects. It was important, then, that I became the voice for those who didn’t have the time, the reach or access, he said.

Typically, this has meant he undertakes an average of two-to-three interviews per month, over as many different platforms as possible. This includes; radio, TV, newspapers and social media.

“All of a sudden, more people are talking about rhino poaching and other types of poaching and you are seeing more in your newsfeed. It is refreshing, as people are understanding that we are in a global extinction crisis right now. And, that it’s a human driven extinction crisis. We can still make a change but, the time to do that is now,” Veale said.

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Careers Advice, Interviews, Mid Career, Wildlife