‘Battleground: Rhino Wars,’ cool enough
Animal Planet series is short on real action
March 6, 2013
No one sets out to produce a documentary series that lasts for only three episodes. When one of these gets on air, the simplest explanation is that the producers didn’t get enough good footage and decided to cut their losses.
That seems to have been the case with “Battleground: Rhino Wars,” which, despite its compelling title, is virtually devoid of military action. But since its subject matter is important and its stars — a team of American special-ops soldiers brought in to help South African park rangers battle poachers — are colorful and charismatic, the show is generally watchable.
Premiering this Thursday, March 7, at 9 p.m. on Animal Planet, “Rhino Wars” is set in an area of wildlife preserves north of Johannesburg where 668 rhinoceroses and an estimated 100 men have been killed by poachers in search of the animals’ horns, which are worth more than their weight in gold on the black market. The premiere episode never explains why they’re so valuable; according to published reports, powdered rhino horn is believed to have medicinal value in China and Vietnam.
The premiere episode also never says who hired the four special-ops guys to go to South Africa. One suspects it was the producers of the series.
The team leader, Craig, a.k.a. Saw — their last names aren’t divulged — is a former Navy SEAL, as are Jeff, a.k.a. Biggs, a sniper, and Rob, the intel specialist. The fourth, Oz, is a former Green Beret medic.
Members of one of the area’s anti-poaching units show the Americans the corpse of a female rhino that ran away after it was shot, so the poachers didn’t even get its horn. The sight is horrifying, but mainly because the locals performed an autopsy on the corpse. Normally, when a rhino is shot, the poachers simply saw off its horn.
In preparation for an upcoming full moon, which in the area is called a “poacher’s moon,” the Americans take target practice — Biggs says that for them, shooting is as relaxing as taking a bubble bath — and then go out with a wildlife expert to learn how to handle animals in the bush.
Disappointingly, the local guy makes them put away their firearms. Ludicrously, he has two of them pretend to be lions attacking the other two. It’s a little cooler when they go out for a stroll and find themselves between some elephants and a group of lions.
The meat of the episode is a nighttime patrol in an area that’s been the site of several recent killings. The Americans split into pairs and drive trucks along 70 miles of electric fence.
When one teams spots an approaching truck, we think we’re finally going to see some poachers learning what it’s like to confront American firepower. Rather, the Americans learn what it’s like to confront a situation in which the people entrusted to protect the animals may be collaborating with the poachers.
The first episode was the only one provided for review, but a montage of scenes from the following episode is also disappointingly devoid of gunplay.
Even if the special-ops guys don’t get to use force, the show says that they’re going to help train the local officials in things like counterinsurgency. But if they did, we don’t see that either.
Fortunately, the guys are fun to watch. Biggs is always good for a sound bite. “As far as I’m concerned,” he tells the camera, “if you’re a rhino hunter, you’re a douchebag.”
While the men are driving out to set up camp in the bush, Biggs says that he’s happy “knowing I get to spend a couple days in the wilderness with some very good-looking men wearing next to nothing.” The other respond with some awkward jokes intended to assure us that Biggs is just kidding.
Saw provides the voice-over narration, which is so gritty and natural that he could make a living narrating tough-guy documentaries if giving counterinsurgency lessons doesn’t work out.
Also arguing in favor of the series is the attention it brings to the threat of the animals’ extinction. “Rhino Wars” may not be the most direct or serious examination of this issue, but it couldn’t hurt.
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