Oro Valley's Craig Sawyer has a cooler hobby than you do.

Cameras in tow, he travels to South Africa to lead a team of special operatives on missions to thwart and capture rhino poachers.

Sawyer, 49, is the star of the Animal Planet reality show "Battleground: Rhino Wars," which premieres Thursday.

Sawyer is a former Marine and Navy SEAL who served in the military from 1982 to 1999. Since then, he's worked a five-year stint in federal law enforcement and served as a protector for high-threat dignitaries.

He's no stranger to television, having appeared on the History Channel's "Top Shot" and "Sniper: Deadliest Missions." His website is tacticalinsider.com.

Sawyer chose a team of three other operatives to join him in South Africa, where they track poachers and help authorities arrest them.

Rhinoceroses are a target of poachers because buyers believe their horns have medicinal purposes and work as an aphrodisiac. Sawyer said South Africa's anti-poaching laws are more lax than those of its neighbors, drawing opportunists to the area.

Poaching of rhinos has increased 5,000 percent since 2007, with poachers killing 668 rhinos for their horns in 2012 and 102 having been poached already this year, said Matthew Lewis, the World Wide Fund for Nature's African species expert. Shows like "Battleground: Rhino Wars" can increase awareness of the problem, but won't necessarily decrease the impetus to poach rhinos, Lewis said.

"Due to TV shows, media coverage, and other efforts, people in the U.S. are increasingly aware of the problem of poaching of rhinos in South Africa," Lewis said by email. "What is less clear is whether increased awareness has reached the primary consumers of rhino horn which are driving the demand and thus the poaching of rhinos, which is almost entirely in Asia, primarily Vietnam.

"Clearly when we see results like over 1.3 million people signing a petition to demand the government of Thailand stop the sale of ivory, which happened last week at the (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) Convention of Parties in Bangkok," Lewis said, "it shows that people have a high degree of awareness about poaching and are willing to speak up to pressure governments to do the right thing when asked to do so."

Sawyer and his wife, Tressa, live in Oro Valley with their children, 9-year-old Caidan and 14-year-old Aspen.

We caught up with Sawyer on the phone.

Q: What do you want to accomplish with the series?

A: What we can do is change the dynamic of this struggle and bring more military guys in the world. Bring an American face to the fight and wake up Americans to the fact that this is a horrific problem. It's not just a South African problem. It's a global problem.

Q: Is making the show dangerous?

A: We put ourselves in harm's way, between the poachers and the last of the rhinos. It is dangerous, because in a lot of these conflicts, a lot of the violent people place a very low value on any life form - animals or human life. Foreigners coming in from Mozambique or any other place with AK-47s won't hesitate to shoot anybody or anything that gets in their way. All they want to do is kill a rhino, take its horn and sell it on the black market, where it may be worth up to $500,000.

Q: Why are they worth so much?

A: It's all perceived value in having medicinal benefits. They believe, erroneously, that it cures everything under the sun, including cancer. In reality, it's only keratin, the same exact compound as hair or fingernails. If a rhino horn cured cancer, so would fingernails. It doesn't, of course. But the cultural belief is so deeply ingrained, particularly in the Far East, that it's very, very difficult to correct.

Q: Do you have fun out there?

A: I'd say the fun is in the satisfaction of knowing that we're doing something that matters. My daughter wants to be a veterinarian. By the time she's old enough to practice, there may not be any rhinos left.

Q: Do you think it's possible to change the rhino's fate?

A: That's something we're hoping. Our hearts are in it. We're hoping people watch us and carry the good fight forward; that other people are inspired to do something. I've already been contacted by some A-list actors and entertainers I can't name yet.

Q: When did you film the episodes?

A: This past summer. We were there for six weeks for the initial run, to get three episodes filmed and submitted to the network to see if they want to purchase the series. If the ratings do well enough, it's off to the races. We could be the next "Whale Wars."

Q: What can people expect from the show?

A: What people are going to see is not a scripted TV show. People are going to see Navy SEALs and Green Berets running real operations against poachers. They'll see us visiting crime scenes where rhinos have been poached, participating in autopsies, conducting ambushes in the field and collecting intelligence.

Q: Is it tough to get it all on film?

A: We're doing every trick we can to try to capture this on film. It's not easy to capture real-world operations. We're in uncharted waters, with the level of operations that we're running and having them filmed for a reality TV show.

On StarNet: Find more photos of "Battleground: Rhino Wars" at azstarnet.com/gallery

"It is dangerous, because in a lot of these conflicts, a lot of the violent people place a very low value on any life form - animals or human life."

Craig Sawyer


South Africa has two rhino species:

• The white rhinoceros, which makes up roughly 90 percent of South Africa's rhinos, is listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as "Near Threatened." There are roughly 22,000 white rhinos in Africa, and South Africa is home to around 20,000 of them.

• The black rhinoceros is categorized as "critically endangered," and numbers fewer than 5,000 in total, roughly 2,000 of which are found in South Africa.

Source: Matthew Lewis, World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF)


• What: "Battleground: Rhino Wars."

• Premieres: 7 p.m. Thursday.

• Network: Animal Planet (check your local listings for the channel).

Contact reporter Phil Villarreal at 573-4130 or pvillarreal@azstarnet.com