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The Green Carpet: Hollywood

TV On the Front Lines of an Extinction Crisis

In Battleground: Rhino Wars, U.S. military men take on South Africa’s bloody rhino conflict.


battleground rhino wars

Not long ago, a Japanese man paid $1.75 million for a blue fin tuna at an auction. The tuna, a Japanese delicacy, faces extinction as a result of over-fishing and habitat degradation. When something is threatened with extinction, we tend to react in two ways: by exploiting what is threatened, or fighting to preserve it.

In one compelling story of preservation, Animal Planet’s three-part mini-series Battleground: Rhino Wars follows four current and former members of the U.S. Special Ops as they risk their lives to protect the world’s almost-extinct rhinoceros population against poachers in South Africa. On the black market, the rhino horn is worth more than gold—it’s falsely believed to have healing powers for everything from colds to cancer.

“[Rhinos] have been around for over 50 million years, and in the last 50 years alone, man has almost wiped them completely out,” begins team leader and former Navy SEAL, Craig “Saw” Sawyer. In the last 30 years, the black rhino population in Africa has dropped from more than 30,000 to only 1,800 according to one recent report. On the plus side, conservation efforts have helped grow the white rhino population from fewer than one hundred to about 19,000 today. But the increasing value and demand of the horn undermine these efforts. As a deterrent to poachers, some farmers and landowners have the rhinos’ horns surgically removed.

The poaching process itself is appalling. Once a horn is hacked off, the rhino is left to bleed to death. The horn is then smuggled out of the country and sold on the lucrative black market. Sawyer says he assembled his team for the South African government to “help raise global awareness and change the dynamic of the fight.”

“This is not a scripted show,” says “Oz,” the team’s medic and Green Beret. “We’re using real body armor. We’ve got real guns. Our adversaries are firing the kind of guns that can take down an elephant in one shot. But firepower [alone] is not going to make a difference. We have to change the public’s opinion that this horn has some sort of magical healing properties.”

“Let’s not sugarcoat it,” continues Sawyer. “We’ve got hardcore crime syndicates coming in from Mozambique, armed with AK-47s, not only slaughtering the entire species, but anybody that gets in their way.” The bounty is so high that poachers are armed with sophisticated equipment from helicopters to night-vision glasses. Each year, about 500 rhinos are killed, and more than 100 park rangers have lost their lives in the fight to protect them.

Before arriving in South Africa, Sawyer and his team were aware of poaching, but it took boots on the ground to instill a deep passion for the cause. “The first day we were on deck, Oz and I were brought to a crime scene where a mother rhino and her calf were poached and butchered. They had been separated in the violence, and they died facing each other, trying to get back to each other. So for us, it was like …(exhales)….”

“It strengthened our resolve that we had to really make a difference,” concludes Oz.

Battleground: Rhino Wars airs on Thursday, March 7, at 9 p.m. (ET/PT).

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Tommi Lewis Tilden

Tommi Lewis Tilden

Tommi Lewis Tilden has worked as an editor for several notable media outlets including Disney Publishing, Teen magazine and TV Guide. The Los Angeles-based editor, journalist and book author is also actively involved in environmental efforts including Tree People and Heal the Bay.
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Tommi's eco awareness has long encompassed her work (e.g. while editor at TEEN she researched environmentally friendly printing), as well as her personal life (she's a proud Hybrid owner and her home sports solar panels).

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