South Africa uses DNA to fight rhino poaching



Posted on 30 April 2012  | 
By Dr. Joseph Okori, leader of WWF's African Rhino Programme

Forensic science is the practice of gathering and analysing of evidence in a prescribed procedure in order to establish facts that can be presented in a legal proceeding. In the earlier days, forensic analysts investigated crimes using physical items found on, in, or around a body at crime scene. Thus, many people still equate forensic science to autopsies only.

However, the field of forensic science is vast and requires many specialists at every point of investigation; from tire track experts, to pathologists, to entomologists, to soil scientists, to ballistic experts, and recently to molecular genetics experts. Similarly various tools are used; from saws, to axes, to blades, to microscopy, and recently to polymer chain reaction machines and gene sequence and fragment size readers.

Poaching of wildlife in Africa is accelerating at alarming rates.  Species such as rhinoceros and elephants bear the biggest poaching burdens for various reasons; including having valued organs such as horns or tusks. Effective prosecution of wildlife crimes is hindered by lack of strong expert evidence linking suspects to poaching crime scenes. In addition, in the event of recovery of trophies, it’s hard to link a particular recovery to a particular country. Without an ownership claim laid to the trophy by a particular country or owner, the prosecution case is usually weak.

In 2009, the University of Pretoria Veterinary Genetics Laboratory identified this gap and developed and patented a Rhinoceros DNA Indexing System (RhODISTM) using microsatellites to build a DNA fingerprint for all rhinoceros in Africa.  Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT) was thinking of similar idea, thus it became apparent that it would be more beneficial for the two institutions to build synergy and work together. This is ideal because besides the rhinoceros, JKUAT is also developing microsatellite markers to fingerprint genetically ivory; thus linkage between the two institutions is very useful.

A PhD student is doing this work. Two MSc students are also optimizing techniques to identify species commonly poached for bush meat trade. Thus bilateral linkages between University of Pretoria and JKUAT are very useful to the institutions. The mandate of the bilateral linkage in DNA forensic sciences will involve peer to peer quality assurance, further research and development of novel single tandem repeat markers or any other method to enhance the reliability of the database to minimize the probability of sentencing an innocent person or releasing a culprit and capacity development including student and staff exchange.

In a recently concluded bilateral capacity building programme organized by Pretoria University and supported by WWF, three Kenyans participated in the initial training on forensic sciences and methods comparison sessions in the veternary lab from 2nd February to 19th March 2012. They included one staff from JKUAT; Dr Shadrack Muya and two staffs from Kenya Wildlife Service; Mr Moses Otiende Yongo and Linus Kariuki.

The Kenyans worked on rhinoceros samples and created a tablet for Kenya’s rhinoceros DNA profiles in the RhODIS database. KWS will continue with populating the database while JKUAT and the lab will continue supporting the database in different technical and developmental capacities while contributing towards the goal of building an African rhino database under the RhODIS system supported by WWF.
So far this year 181 rhinos have been killed for their horns in South Africa.
© WWF-Canon / Martin Harvey Enlarge
Rhino horn and elephant ivory seized in Thailand
© Panjit Tansom / TRAFFIC Enlarge

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