First of all, the rhinoceros has an image problem.
The rhino is not a pretty animal -- magnificent in its enormity, maybe, but not pretty -- not like the lion or Bengal tiger, sexy animals that people can get excited about and will drop everything to run to Africa or Asia and try to save.
They are big, bulky animals with little grace and less beauty. Face it: In a world that prizes youth and beauty, rhinos are old -- they've been around for 45 million years -- and ugly.
But the rhino is endowed with an object of envy -- the great horn upon its snout, coveted by poachers and sold for purposes ranging from the ornamental to the aphrodisiac. The rhino, a creature with no natural enemies, consequently has the most dreadful and unnatural enemy of all: man.
The struggle between this huge animal and well-organized, systematic poachers in Africa is the subject of "The Rhino War" on the National Geographic's Explorer series on the TBS cable television Superstation.
The documentary is pleasantly punctuated with music by Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and the film's scenic views of Africa are stunning.
But, befitting the ugliness of the poachers' work, this is not a pretty film at times. The shots of slaughtered rhinos are gruesome.
"Everybody has seen all the nice stuff," said the film's producer, Philip Cayford. "It's interesting now to see the political side as well." Here, political means the threat posed to a species by profit-driven poachers. "I personally see the interaction between people and wildlife more interesting."
And the poachers are indeed an organized group, with middlemen and bodyguards involved in the brutal network. "The rhino's problem is strictly one of being hunted," said Cayford. "It's not a matter of a shrinking environment" as it is for a number of other threatened species. The black rhino, the film points out, has suffered a 95 percent slaughter over the past 15 years.
This presentation, one of the series' few full-length documentaries, marks the 100th Explorer show on TBS.