DANIELLE PETTERSON

 

The University of Pretoria’s Onderstepoort Veterinary Genetics Laboratory’s (OPVGL) project to build a central DNA profile database for rhinos across Africa has been instrumental in facilitating 380 arrests and 25 prison sentences for rhino poaching.

RhODIS (Rhino DNA Index System) can be used to match a rhino horn sample to carcass material or a profile on the database to determine the origin of the animal from which the horn was collected.

The two-year-old system has been used to profile the DNA of approximately 3000 rhinos from South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia. It has assisted in more than 400 forensic cases, according to WWF (the World Wild Fund). The laboratory is able to extract DNA, profile it and match it to the scene of the crime within a day.

The report said that RhODIS is based on the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) for human beings. Rhodis records a DNA profile as well as basic information such as the animal’s gender and species.

South Africa has lost approximately 200 rhinos to illegal killings since the beginning of the year, according to a media statement released by the Department of Environmental Affairs. “Rhinos are animals you can connect to and it is this reality that keeps us dedicated to the DNA profiling of rhinos, to make a difference,” OPVGL Laboratory Director Dr. Cindy Harper told WWF.

OPVGL, in collaboration with the South African Police Service’s forensic laboratory, the National Wildlife Crime Reaction Unit and South African National Parks (SANParks) has put together a standard DNA collection kit including everything that a veterinarian requires to collect DNA samples. The Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs Edna Molewa announced in April this year that when live rhinos are darted, samples of the horns and blood have to be collected using these DNA kits, in order to enter as many rhinos as possible into the database.

According to Dr Joseph Okori, the head of WWF’s African Rhino Programme, RhODIS is now South African law, meaning that RhODIS evidence can be used to prosecute poachers. The DNA indexing system has also been adopted in Kenya. “India and Botswana have expressed a keen interest too. It is because of the effort in this project and the funding received that we are seeing such a ripple effect and we will continue pushing forward,” he said.

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