CSI at the sharp end in rhino war

A ground-breaking rhino DNA database being used to dramatically improve prosecution of poachers and horn traffickers may be extended to help fight the illegal trade in body parts of lions and other African species.

The RhoDIS database created by the Onderstepoort Veterinary Genetics Laboratory of the University of Pretoria, already has DNA profiles from more than 5,000 African rhinos and is growing rapidly.

DNA evidence, matching seized horn to the carcass it came from, has already proved vital in a number of successful poaching prosecutions, with many more cases in the pipeline, lab director Dr Cindy Harper told us when we met her recently.

‘We’ve got over 630 cases on our files, where we’ve received samples either directly from seized horn or from equipment used in poaching,’ she said. ‘June 2010 was really the starting point [for the database] so it’s very new for everything to have been through the courts and to have been tested, but there have been a number of cases where it’s been through the courts and we have been able to match the rhino horn back to an actual poaching case and link a trafficker directly that way or by linking the implements used in the poaching case found on the poachers.’

Dr Harper said that DNA profiles could be obtained from even microscopic traces of horn found on suspects. Depending on the individual animal’s DNA characteristics, the probability of another match existing in the population varied between 1 in 12 million and 1 in 700 million. ‘With a white rhino population of only 21,000, that’s pretty convincing, ‘ she said.

A change in South African law, requiring rhino owners to collect samples for the lab whenever an animal is relocated, hunted or dies, has led to rapid development of the DNA database. Dr Harper says while it may not be feasible to obtain DNA profiles from every rhino in somewhere like Kruger National Park, which has more than 8,000 animals, she is aiming for coverage of a majority of Africa’s rhinos in the next three to five years. The database already includes rhinos from Namibia, Zimbabwe and Botswana, and the lab is now collaborating with Kenyan scientists to establish a satellite project in Kenya.

‘It’s a really collaborative system and we’re hoping it will expand,’ says Dr Harper. ‘The idea was to do this in Africa where the main problem is, where the rhinos are, so that we could set it up as an African programme for African species. We are busy already with developing a DNA profiling system for lions. Lion bones are becoming a problem because tiger bones are becoming so rare.’

RhoDIS is also likely to play a key role if calls to legalise trade in rhino horn are ultimately successful. Any controlled trade in rhino horn would need a unique identification system to verify that horn being traded really did come from where it was claimed. ‘If we want to manage it 100 per cent, we can’t ever allow illegal stuff to go through that system, and this is how we can manage it,’ says Dr Harper.

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3 Comments on “CSI at the sharp end in rhino war”

  1. Sarel van der Merwe August 9, 2012 at 8:38 pm #

    Are you aiming at a database for captive lions or free-ranging lions? My concern is that trade in captive lion bone will result in an increased demand for free-range African lions. So far, the SA government is not concerned about exportation of lion bone being able to cause damage to the free-range lion populations.

  2. ihlositravel August 20, 2012 at 9:07 am #

    It would be great if there is a worldwide database. Maybe Interpol should run this?


  3. stephpais March 5, 2014 at 10:46 am #

    Dear Dr Cindy Harper

    I am a musician and songwriter from Durban, South Africa. I have a dream and that is to help save the Rhino by using my music! Music is a very powerful tool, capable of having a great impact on this world. I have written a song that will have an impact and help.

    Please take the time to listen to my song, spread the word, share the link and talk about it. I need your help for the song to have the impact needed to help the Rhino.

    Click here to listen and read more about this very powerful and emotional song:


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