Delegates visited a rhino crime scene in Kruger National Park © Dr Cindy Harper
Pretoria, South Africa, 28th June 2016—The international expansion of rhino horn DNA testing was announced at the RhODIS® Rhino DNA Scientific workshop in South Africa at Kruger National Park and the University of Pretoria’s Veterinary Genetics Lab (VGL) which concluded on Friday.
RhODIS® is a rhino DNA profiling and database system developed by VGL in collaboration with partners. To date all but one of Africa’s rhino range States has contributed samples to the VGL for RhODIS® analysis.
The workshop, funded by USAID, through the Wildlife-TRAPS Project, and the WWF African Rhino Programme, brought together wildlife DNA forensic scientists, enforcement officers and investigators from source, transit and consumer countries of rhino horn. Various branches of South Africa’s Police Service were represented as was the country’s Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA).
Since the rhino poaching upsurge in Africa started in 2008, over 5,000 rhinos have been poached across the continent. “The reach of the transnational organized criminals behind the poaching has extended to all major rhino range States, undermining rhino conservation successes achieved over the last two decades; threatening both African rhino species if increasing poaching levels cannot be brought under control” said Dr Richard Emslie from the IUCN SSC African Rhino Specialist Group.
© Simon Robertson
The workshop, organized by the VGL, TRAFFIC, WWF and TRACE Wildlife Forensics Network, took scientists and enforcement officers to a rhino crime scene in Kruger National Park, allowing them to see two poached rhinos whose horns had been savagely hacked off with an axe. With the park losing about two rhinos a day to poaching, both black and white populations in the park appear to have started to decline.
Scientists from Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Hong Kong, South Korea, South Africa, Kenya, Botswana, Namibia, Netherlands, United Kingdom, Australia, Czech Republic, and India participated in DNA sample collection training at the crime scene, using the specific forensic sample kits developed for RhODIS®.
“This really brings home the reality of the rhino horn trade,” said Dr Jeffrine Rovie from the National Wildlife Forensic Laboratory in Malaysia, “and justifies our recent transfer of 14 seized rhino horn samples to the South Africa Government for RhoDIS DNA testing to aid enforcement.”
Delegates also saw the eRhODIS data collection app demonstrated and versions of these apps in other languages could be developed in future.
Workshop delegates and all African rhino range States support the development and use of a single standardized and compatible forensic rhino DNA system globally. According to Dr Cindy Harper, Director of VGL, a major output of the meeting was that it detailed the requirements of a simplified method to facilitate the sharing and roll out of an improved RhODIS® compatible analysis system to multiple laboratories across the world that can become the international standard capable of producing comparable DNA profiles, which can be loaded onto a global database.
“While the RhODIS® system is already a proven tool for the investigation of rhino poaching cases and has been used in a number of prosecutions; the refinement and roll out of a recognized international forensic rhino DNA standard should positively support enforcement action and investigation of trade routes at an international scale.” RhODIS® can also already determine species of African rhino from recovered horn, and the meeting recognised the need to develop it further in the hope it can also be used to distinguish between the species of Asian rhino.
Dr Joseph Okori leader of WWF’s African Rhino Programme noted the critical role played by the global forensic community as a major contributor to combating rhino crime; and that DNA analysis is starting to help improve knowledge of trade routes and inform other aspects of rhino management.
Nick Ahlers, who manages the Wildlife-TRAPS Project for TRAFFIC and IUCN said “another aim of this workshop was to build relationships between different scientists from countries important in the illegal rhino horn trade and we’ve certainly achieved this given the positive feedback by the range, transit and consumer countries that have participated this week.”
“Rhino poaching not only threatens to wipe out these iconic species, but is also devastating local communities through associated criminality, violence and theft. DNA forensics is a critical tool in the fight against wildlife crime and the outcomes of this workshop are likely to have impacts beyond rhinos to other species involved in the illegal wildlife trade,” said Dr Sara Carlson, a Biodiversity and Natural Resources Specialist at USAID.
About University of Pretoria – VGL
The University of Pretoria’s Veterinary Genetics Laboratory is based at the Faculty of Veterinary Science at Onderstepoort. It provides a DNA profiling and analysis service and supports various research projects that investigate genetics and forensics of African wildlife species. The University of Pretoria is a leading research university in South Africa and one of the largest in the country.
WWF is one of the world’s largest and most respected independent conservation organisations, with almost 5 million supporters and a global network active in over 100 countries. WWF’s mission is to stop the degradation of the Earth’s natural environment and to build a future in which humans live in harmony with nature, by conserving the world’s biological diversity, ensuring that the use of renewable natural resources is sustainable, and promoting the reduction of pollution and wasteful consumption.
About TRACE Wildlife Forensics Network
TRACE Wildlife Forensics Network is a not for profit organisation based in the United Kingdom working to promote the use of forensic science in wildlife crime prosecutions and wildlife trade monitoring through the delivery of training, capacity building and forensic test development projects.
TRAFFIC is a non-governmental organization working globally on trade in wild animals and plants in the context of both biodiversity conservation and sustainable development. TRAFFIC is a strategic alliance between WWF and IUCN, the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
USAID is the lead U.S. Government agency that works to end extreme global poverty and enable resilient, democratic societies to realize their potential. U.S. foreign assistance has always had the two-fold purpose of furthering America’s interests while improving lives in the developing world. USAID carries out U.S. foreign policy by promoting broad-scale human progress at the same time it expands stable, free societies, creates markets and trade partners for the United States, and fosters good will abroad. Spending less than 1 percent of the total federal budget, USAID works in over 100 countries to: Promote broadly shared economic prosperity; Strengthen democracy and good governance; Protect human rights; Improve global health; Advance food security and agriculture; Improve environmental sustainability; Further education; Help societies prevent and recover from conflicts; and Provide humanitarian assistance in the wake of natural and man-made disasters.
IUCN, International Union for Conservation of Nature, helps the world find pragmatic solutions to our most pressing environment and development challenges. IUCN’s work focuses on valuing and conserving nature, ensuring effective and equitable governance of its use, and deploying nature-based solutions to global challenges in climate, food and development. IUCN supports scientific research, manages field projects all over the world, and brings governments, NGOs, the UN and companies together to develop policy, laws and best practice. IUCN is the world’s oldest and largest global environmental organization, with almost 1,300 government and NGO Members and more than 15,000 volunteer experts in 185 countries. IUCN’s work is supported by almost 1,000 staff in 45 offices and hundreds of partners in public, NGO and private sectors around the world. www.iucn.org
About The IUCN SSC African Rhino Specialist Group (AfRSG)
The AfRSG is one of over 120 IUCN Species Survival Commission (SSC) Specialist Groups, Red List Authorities and Task Forces working towards achieving the SSC’s vision of “a world that values and conserves present levels of biodiversity”. The Group has formal range State members and a wide range of expert members. On request it has facilitated the review and development of many range State national Rhino Plans as well as the first draft African Rhino Range States Rhino Plan. Together with TRAFFIC and IUCN’s Asian Rhino Specialist Group it assists with mandated reporting to CITES. The African Rhino Specialist Group’s work is sponsored by multiple donors including US Fish and Wildlife Service, WWF African Rhino Programme, Save the Rhino International, International Rhino Foundation and the UK Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, with others contributing some additional or in kind support. http://rhinos.org/research-publications/iucn-african-rhino-specialist-group/