Veterans for Wildlife team member, and renowned author Tony Park has his say on what the fight against wildlife crime means to him...

When I was contacted by Veterans for Wildlife to help out with their public relations my initial reaction, beyond offering a bit of advice, was to say no.

While I did work in public relations in the past, I now write novels set in Africa for a living and in my mind I was done both with PR and anything military-related.

After 34 years of service in the Australian Army Reserve (similar to the old British Territorial Army), including 20 years as a public affairs officer (PAO), I was in the process of leaving the military.

Your request for separation has been approved, the Army replied. We had been through so much, the Army and me, and with this one-line email it was over.

During my military career I’d gone from a pimply post-adolescent through to manhood and the Army had been a part of my life all along the way.  It helped define me as a person. 

As in any relationship the Army and I had our ups and downs.  Sometimes we loved each other, sometimes we wondered what we were doing with each other. 

I joined as an infantryman, and later spent 10 years as an air dispatcher, which included an attachment to the British Territorial Army while I was working as a journalist in the UK.  Budget cuts forced the closure of my unit in Australia and I ended up doing what I had previously thought the unthinkable – I joined Army public relations.

Through my twenties and thirties I had worked as a journalist, government media adviser and PR man and one of the key attractions of my military service had always been that it was something so different to my day job.  That changed when I was commissioned as a Captain in Army PR.

My military career was a rollercoaster in terms of my commitment.  My enthusiasm reached its peak when I deployed to Afghanistan in 2002 as the PAO for the Australian Special Operations Task Group, based at Bagram.

By the end of my deployment Afghanistan was as close to being at peace as Afghanistan gets. No Australians had been injured or killed during my time on operations and there was even a welcome home parade!

I was on a high, with a report from my Commanding Officer attesting to the fact that I had done a good job, portraying our troops in a positive light. In Australia I was posted to a newly created reservist’s position in Headquarters Special Operations.

And then it all started to go wrong.

Due to the mishandling of a controversial incident involving the loss at sea of a boatload of refugees, bound for Australia from Indonesia, military public affairs became increasingly centralised.

As Australia sent troops to Iraq, and later returned to Afghanistan, a succession of Defence Ministers took over the day-to-day tactical release of information to the media.  Public affairs officers were no longer able to talk directly to journalists and our role was relegated to that of a digital paper shuffler.

As the years went on I did less military service and became ever more disenchanted.  Afghanistan was going from bad to worse and I felt that the little I had done, while personally gratifying, had counted for nothing.

At the same time I watched the TV news and found it hard to keep it together in front of my wife as more and more of our people came home in coffins draped in Australian flags.

Meanwhile, a different war was being waged on another continent I have a foot on - Africa.

My wife and I literally live half our lives in Africa and we have a house near the Kruger National Park. In the 22 years of living and working in Africa I’ve become passionate about the plight of endangered wildlife and the battle being fought to protect it.

After that first contact from Veterans for Wildlife I read about the work they were doing.  I was convinced that the people involved not only had their hearts in the right place, but were also making a difference.

I wrote a few media releases about the work being done to train the Black Mambas, South Africa’s first all-female anti-poaching unit, and about the successes of veterans monitoring surveillance systems that were detecting and disrupting rhino poaching gangs.

Here were good people making a difference and the press was picking up on ‘our’ good news stories from the frontline of this wildlife war. I once more felt like I was a part of something bigger than my own little world, part of a team.

One of the stated aims of Veterans for Wildlife is to help veterans transition from military to civilian life, by utilising the skills and expertise they gained in the course of their service to help those engaged in the war on poaching and give the volunteers a renewed sense of purpose.

I write that, a lot, in media releases, but it also turned out to be true for me; I’m doing a PR job like I did in Afghanistan, working with the same type of committed, professional warriors, backing them up and helping them garner support for the mission.

I feel like I’m back in the fight, and in my own small way doing something worthwhile. 

It feels good. Want to join us?