Nonprofit works with veterinarians and farmers to protect rhinos from poachers in South Africa

PHOTO: ABC News Bob Woodruff and veterinary staff assist an ailing rhinoceros in April 2017. Nonprofit Rhino 911, founded by Fred Hees and Nico Jacobs, works 24/7 protecting wildlife in the Northwest Province of South Africa.PlayChristine Romo/ABC News
WATCH Saving rhinos is 'risky' business in South Africa

It may seem like a jarring scene -- a rhinoceros, sedated, as veterinary staff saw off its horn -- but this is now becoming increasingly common across South Africa as farmers and others desperately try to save the animals from extinction.

"It's the lesser of two evils. Do you leave the horn and let someone poach it?" asked Fred Hees, cofounder of the nonprofit Rhino 911, which works to protect rhinoceroses and other wildlife in the country.

National parks in South Africa are under siege, plagued by poachers, and Kruger National Park is ground zero. The frequently more than $300,000 reason: the rhinoceros horn, the gold and diamonds of the modern world.

"It's quite a dangerous park to work in," said one officer who spoke on the condition that ABC News would blur his face and disguise his voice.

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In a joint project with ESPN's E60, ABC News' Bob Woodruff and team joined the Kruger forensics staff as they investigated their third crime scene on a recent day. There was not much left for them to work with, just a skull. Using metal detectors, the staff searched for projectiles used to kill the rhinoceros.

After poachers shoot the rhinoceros, they move in quickly to hack off its horn. Often the rhinoceros is still alive.

PHOTO: A rhinoceros named Vyrsaat lost his horn and most of his face to poachers in South Africa. Constant medical care from veterinarian Louis Greef, left, has kept him alive. Christine Romo/ABC News
A rhinoceros named Vyrsaat lost his horn and most of his face to poachers in South Africa. Constant medical care from veterinarian Louis Greef, left, has kept him alive.

A rhinoceros named Vyrsaat survived a similar attack, losing his horn and most of his face. Constant medical care from veterinarian Louis Greef has kept him alive.

Poaching incidents are up by more than 8,000 percent across South Africa, from 13 cases in 2007 to nearly 1,100 in 2016. On average, three white rhinoceroses are killed every day, according to the South Africa Department of Environmental Affairs. Experts say white rhinoceroses could be wiped out in the next few years.

Trafficked rhinoceros horns can be found throughout Asia, from an illegal wildlife market in Myanmar to a black market in Vietnam. Even though the horns are made of keratin -- no different than the material found in human fingernails -- the horns are coveted for their supposed medicinal value.

Global criminal syndicates will stop at nothing to get them.

The officer told ABC News that there are eight to 12 poaching gangs inside Kruger every single day. He told ABC News that he'd seen 1,500 white rhinoceroses killed in his time at Kruger.

There might be some hope, though, in the form of a nonprofit called Rhino 911.

PHOTO: Poaching incidents are up by more than 8,000 percent across South Africa, from 13 cases in 2007 to nearly 1,100 in 2016. On average, three to five white rhinoceros are killed every day, leaving babies orphaned. Christine Romo/ABC News
Poaching incidents are up by more than 8,000 percent across South Africa, from 13 cases in 2007 to nearly 1,100 in 2016. On average, three to five white rhinoceros are killed every day, leaving babies orphaned.

Rhino 911 works around the clock

The nonprofit was cofounded by Hees, the owner of Battle Born Munitions, a weapons company in Nevada, and South African farmer and pilot Nico Jacobs.

"If you travel across this country, you see how vast it is here," Hees said. "The rhino is spread so far. They hear shots fired at night. Who's gonna respond to that? Right now, no one except for Rhino 911."

Hees, Jacobs and their team work around the clock to protect rhinoceroses and other wildlife. And, they're taking this battle to the air with a Bell 407 GT helicopter, an updated version of the U.S. Army's Kiowa Warrior.

Veterinarian Gerardhus Sheepers and his team travel across the Savannah, treating wounded rhinoceroses. The process can be dangerous and the rhinoceroses can be unpredictable.

"Despite all the risk and all the other factors, you just can't stop doing it," Jacobs said. "So, it's what we do."

Rhino 911's advanced, state-of-the-art technology makes tracking people and animals from 4,000 to 8,000 feet in the air a reality and gives the team an advantage against poachers.

But, Rhino 911's work and involvement in South Africa's Northwest Province have put the team's members in the crosshairs.

"We were informed by some people in the intel community that we should step lightly because our names have been put on a list to be targeted," Hees said. "And as I asked, 'Targeted for what?' They said, 'Just be careful. Remove yourself from Facebook. Remove your family pictures.'"

A former South African defense official who was only willing to speak to ABC News in shadow, with his face blurred and voice altered, said he had specific information about how Rhino 911 might be targeted.

"Once they (poachers) come into your country to kill an animal, if you stand in their way, they will come for you as well," the former official said. "[The poachers are] looking at bringing in bigger weapons, in for helicopters, to shoot at them. And that was including RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) 7s. ... The poachers would like to shoot down a helicopter or aircraft."

Hees said that in September 2016, a private security organization was called out to a poaching incident. Three poachers were arrested and the security team uncovered an A4 antitank rocket.

Hees said that through a network, the team had traced the rocket's origin. It had been issued by the U.S. government to an army in Mosul, Iraq, before ISIS took over the city. Once ISIS overran Mosul, the rocket made its way to South Africa.

ISIS reaches South Africa

ISIS has already made its mark in Africa with brutal attacks in Egypt, Kenya and Libya and recently the group was connected to an attack against the U.S. in Niger, killing four service members in an ambush.

"The way we look at it is, one single horn on the black market can buy as many as 1,000 AK-47 rifles," Hees said.

John Cohen, an ABC News contributor and former counterterrorism coordinator at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, said ISIS has been very creative in finding ways to generate funding for its terrorist activities.

"They've sold oil on the black market. They have sold stolen antiquities. ... They have engaged in criminal activities like kidnapping and extortion," Cohen said.

All of this has come at a very tense time for the country, where violent crime and unemployment have been soaring and President Jacob Zuma faces an escalating movement to remove him from office.

"South Africa's northern border is known for being porous. Their border control organizations and law-enforcement organizations are overstretched. [There are] concerns about corruption in government and there's large areas of land that are essentially ungoverned," Cohen said.

Also, ISIS fighters are on the run after losing Raqqa, their capital in Syria, to Iraqi government forces, possibly making South Africa more appealing.

"Law enforcement, counterterrorism intelligence agencies are concerned that it would be an attractive safe haven for fighters fleeing Syria and Iraq," Cohen said.

Land owned by largely white farmers is now frequently under attack. Farmers are assaulted and animals are poached, making farming in South Africa widely a very dangerous occupation. Even Rhino 911 partner Jacobs' farm has been attacked four times.

"Unfortunately this is the reality we live in," he told ABC News. "I grew up here. If I need to die here, I'll die here and be part of the statistics."

The threats have been a boon for security companies with skyrocketing sales of electric fences, sensors, cameras and now possibly even helicopters, with Rhino 911 looking to expand its fleet and its duties.

PHOTO: Veterinary staff remove a rhinoceros horn and sand it down. Christine Romo/ABC News
Veterinary staff remove a rhinoceros' horn and sand it down.

Herds of hornless rhino

Herds of hornless rhinoceros could become the new normal in South Africa, farmers said.

"We want our rhino to last for as many years as possible," said Pelham Jones, chairman of the Private Rhino Owners Association. "We want to be able to harvest horns whenever we can to meet this international demand."

Many farmers say it's a no-brainer and some who once opposed de-horning the animals say they have had a change of heart.

"Whether we like it or not, we have to de-horn these rhino," owner Lynne Mactavish said. "I fought that decision for about five years. ... That cost us five rhino and plunged us into the worst nightmare we have ever been in."

But some critics say private farmers are simply harvesting horns for future profit. Mactavish told ABC News de-horning was a last resort to save the beloved animals.

"Every single one of us, standing there, looking at one of our animals bleeding to death and suffering. In that instance, you know, there's no other option," she said. "We de-horn."

The horns are cut and sanded, leaving behind only a couple of inches so it can regrow, providing an inexhaustible supply of a commodity more valuable than gold. Every horn is collected, measured and bagged in front of a nature conservation representative.

"The government's still doing a national audit so they know exactly how much horn is in the country," Mactavish said. "And then what we'd like to establish is some sort [of] broker system. Our intention is not to flood the market at all -- like they did with ivory. It's to slowly supply the demand and we can do that with de-horned rhinos."

The debate over whether to lift a ban, making it legal to sell rhinoceros horn internationally, has reached a boiling point. Many private rhinoceros owners in South Africa say they believe that lifting the ban would curb poaching. Everyone does not agree.

"Unfortunately, what's happening is that individuals are banking on extinction," said Jeff Flocken, North America regional director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare. "So we've seen a shift. It's gone from health to wealth. The reason this animal is being killed right now is speculating on extinction."

With rhinoceros-horn demand at an all-time high and criminal and terror groups profiting off the sales, the animals that are not under lock and key are being poached.

"This demand is so unbelievably high," Rhino 911's Jacobs said. "If we don't do anything about it, we're losing these animals in our lifetime."