Team Room: I’m preparing this post by Travis Lively now for HotExtract.com. It’s an interview with Craig Sawyer regarding his upcoming debut on Animal Planet with “BATTLEGROUND: Rhino WARS.”  It involves 3 SEALs and an SF 18 DELTA medic working in South Africa to take on Rhino Poachers, and that seems like a pretty worthy effort! – Charlie

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What do you get when you send three elite US Navy SEALs and a US Army Special Forces Green Beret, equipped with state-of-the-art technology and weapons, on a mission to stop poachers from killing off the last of Africa’s wild rhinoceros population?  You get “Muscular Conservation.”  This is the beginning of a new and innovative strategy Animal Planet appears to be adopting in an effort to assist with curbing the rampant poaching of the world’s most exotic, majestic and endangered species.   

BATTLEGROUND: RHINO WARS is a new Animal Planet mini-series, which could serve as a template for this new innovative and unconventional approach animal conservation.   This mini-series also appears to have helped inspire A-list actor, Tom Hardy, with the help of Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire, to come up with the idea of an anti-poaching movie late last summer.

I caught up with friend and fellow former US Navy SEAL and “Rhino” team leader Craig “Sawman” Sawyer to discuss the excitement building around his latest project:

Q: It’s great to catch up with you Brother. How the hell have you been?

A: Man, I’ve been staying busy as ever, but now it’s become increasingly more centered upon the entertainment work I do. I’m still doing other tactical work and instruction, but the filming is increasing and starting to take over.

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Q: Needless to say, you have been extremely busy with numerous successful projects over the past several years.  What makes BATTLEGROUND: Rhino Wars stand apart from the various other TV projects you have done?

A: The Rhino Wars project struck me as different right off the bat, because we’re running real world operations and allowing it to be filmed in an effort to help make a real difference in saving the endangered rhino from extinction. With all the other film and television projects I’ve done, so far, there hasn’t been the actual threat of life and death like we faced in South Africa.  It’s uncharted territory as far as running this type of mission against hard-core international poaching syndicates while trying to capture it on camera and not getting my team, or the cameramen shot, or eaten in the process. Yes, I said “eaten” because we actually learned from our indigenous trackers one morning that we had been stalked by a particularly aggressive pride of lions as we waited in ambush the night before. That’s a whole different element for us. They had been all around us…eerily close, but we hadn’t heard them. We were more than prepared for the poachers, but after that night, I’ve devised a way to protect the cameramen a bit better, just in case.

Q: Do you consider this to be more of a Reality Show or a Documentary?

A: I think this might qualify as a bit of both. Please forgive me if I’m getting this wrong, but it seems to me that Rhino Wars has elements of both Reality Show and Documentary, due to the educational aspects and the real personalities of the team the viewers will see.

Q: This is obviously not a typical Animal Planet Show.  Can you tell me about the casting process?  How you and your team were selected for this particular show?

A: I was approached by the head of the production company to lead a team of American Spec Ops guys for the effort. Once he explained we would run real ops against the poachers to save the rhinos, I was on board. The filming of our operations is something I’m still getting used to… It takes some adjustment, especially after hiding from cameras my whole life as a covert operator.

I told the production company I personally knew and worked with hundreds of solid operators in different places, all with active clearances and current skills. He let me run with the casting for the team. Because we had a little time, I just casually started asking some of the guys I thought would be a good fit and slowly narrowed it down from there, based on interest and passion for the cause, in addition to operational experience and demeanor. In the end, I had a 6-man team to present. The network then selected 4 of us to move forward with the production. Three of us ended up being SEALs, with an SF 18-D medic.

Q: Tell me about your team.  Have you had the opportunity to work with Team Guys like Rob Roy or even Green Berets before this project?  Aside from being a “shooter,” what role did each of them play as part of the team (medic, intelligence, communications…)?

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A: We’ve got a strong team put together. I think we’re all really proud to be part of it.

Rob is a fellow SEAL. We went to BUD/S together, then ended up at DEVGRU together later on. Rob’s a bad ass. With my dedicated intel rep cut from the team by the network, Rob stepped up to handle that task for our initial ops in country. He did an outstanding job in a crunch, just like I knew he would. His contributions in that capacity were a game changer.

Biggs is fellow SEAL sniper with all the skills you could want. He’s deadly serious whenever there’s operating to do, but will also crack you up constantly when the bullets aren’t actually flying. I think the viewers will get a kick out of seeing a hard-core operator kick some major ass, then sing to a rhino, like only Biggs can do.

Oz is the medic. He’s an Army SF 18-D with currency in that application, as well as schoolhouse time instructing it. While each of us are comfortable patching up bullet holes, it’s important to have a dedicated medic who can handle more complicated medical issues should that be necessary in such a remote environment.

Each guy wears multiple hats in a team this small. That’s why I wanted guys who could handle multiple tasks on a regular basis. Operational experience and reputation were important factors. No room for a sandbagger, or load on a team like this. Each of us are combat veterans and share a drive to actively engage the poachers to help defend the remaining endangered rhino.

Q: I think our audience understands the basic premise of the show, but can you explain, from the perspective of an operational former Navy SEAL, what the primary objective of the show is and was for you personally?  Is it what you expected?

A: The basic premise of this entire effort is to bring Americans into the South African fight to save the rhino before they’re all gone. By bringing us over there, it is hoped the American audience will sit up and take notice of this crisis, because it’s not just an African issue. The entire planet is losing a species that has been around for 50-60 Million years. We will have whatever impact we are able upon the poachers there. What we hope is that in addition to our operations, Americans will be inspired to join us and do what they can to help save this senselessly endangered animal.

Q: After being on the ground in Africa, did your initial perception of the mission change or evolve? 

A: I have to admit, our perception did change a bit after getting boots on the ground and experiencing the situation up close and personally. That level of immersion is intense, especially when you witness the tragedy of a situation like this, where there is so much senseless waste of such a majestic species, driven solely by human greed.

It breaks your heart, then it seriously pisses you off. That’s why we were recruited.

Q: What were some of the frustrations and challenges you and your team encountered throughout the duration of the mission?

A: Haha! No comment!!

Seriously, we were faced with a never-ending string of challenges and obstacles in this very unique effort. We had to devise new systems for just about everything we needed to do there. We don’t have U.S. military support over there, so improvising is key. I was able to bring quite a bit of tactical kit for the team through my amazing sponsors, but other than that, we did this on very little, compared to what we are accustomed to in typical U.S. Spec Ops missions.

The poachers wanted to kill us, the lions wanted to eat us, the rhinos wanted to trample us, the hyenas even ate our camp one night when we were particularly smoked and couldn’t afford to lose the sleep. Those hyenas eat steel pots, leather gloves, garbage bags, anything that smalls like food. It’s bizarre how powerful their jaws are and what they do to a steel cooking pot, with puncture holes and the pot folded in half! You’d have to see it to believe it.  

Q: After this incredibly unique experience, what type of a role does Craig Sawyer and his team see themselves assuming with this type of conservation in the future?

A: My hope is that our efforts and the risks we take will inspire people around the globe to join in the effort to stop this mindless behavior of wiping a species as cool as the rhino off the face of the planet, just because some clowns falsely believe the horn has magical powers. If we can have that kind of impact on global awareness and participation surrounding the rhino, then perhaps, just maybe, we can apply the same ethic and drive to attack another worthy issue. God knows there are plenty to choose from these days. Anyway, I think that’s something we can all be proud of. That’s the kind of legacy we would all ultimately hope for. For now, we’re just attacking this crisis with all that we have to see what positive impact we can have. We’re all just crazy enough to give it one hell of a try.  

Q: Can you provide any insight into why rhino horn is now literally worth its weight in gold…especially on the Chinese black market?    

A: Well, unfortunately, the Asian market is driving the demand for rhino horn, due to the false perception that the horn has medicinal benefits, like curing cancer and working as an aphrodisiac. Due to this tragic misperception, each horn can bring up to half a MILLION dollars on the Asian black market. With this kind of demand, the poor rhino has no chance, unless humans really step it up to intervene in a more effective manner.  

Q: The UK Telegraph reported that from 2008-2011, 776 rhinos were killed in South Africa.  The poachers were reportedly utilizing GPS, helicopters and semi-automatic weapons.  Did you and your team encounter any poachers utilizing these same tools, techniques, tactics and procedures? 

A: We are coordinating closely with the South African government and a security company there that also protect the rhinos. Their experience is that all of the techniques you have mentioned are used on a regular basis. After all, this rhino poaching has sadly become big business. I will tell you that the numbers have increased dramatically over the last couple of years with the loss being more than one rhino every 16 hours. You can’t learn about this crisis and not want to help. It just draws you in, due to the senselessness of it all.  

Q: Thanks Brother.  I really appreciate you taking the time to provide SOFREP your unique insight to this growing problem.  We look forward to the series premier!  Please keep me posted on your other upcoming projects.

A: Hey, thank YOU, Travis! It’s always a pleasure to share time with a brother and to shed light on a situation that deserves correcting. I appreciate you allowing me the opportunity to get the word out and generate some energy for this project. For all of you who watch Battleground: Rhino Wars, thanks in advance for whatever you might do to join us and help make a positive impact in this negative situation.

For those interested here, I’ll be posting updates on my public Facebook page: Craig “Sawman” Sawyer

We’re only getting started with these first 3 episodes. If Animal Planet pulls the trigger, we will soon go back and seriously drop the hammer to continue running our operations with even greater ferocity and impact, using all that we learned during our first trip over there. We’re eagerly looking forward to it.  

Thanks for any support!

Check out the image gallery of the team:

Check out the latest TV trailer: http://animal.discovery.com/tv-shows/battleground-rhino-wars

BATTLEGROUND: Rhino Wars premieres on Animal Planet on March 7 at 9PM ET.

BATTLEGROUND: Rhino Wars