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DNA evidence used to convict rhinoceros hunters

Researchers at the University of Pretoria in South Africa are reporting that DNA evidence is being used to successfully convict rhinoceros hunters. Rhinoceros horns that are seized from poachers and traffickers are now being directly linked to the crime scenes where rhinoceros remains have been abandoned.

The Rhino DNA Index System (RHoDIS) has already been used in more than 5,800 forensic cases where the DNA evidence from horns has been traced back to blood-stained evidence and rhinoceros carcasses.

RHoDIS is being run by veterinarian and genetics specialist Dr. Cindy Harper of the Veterinary Genetics Laboratory. The ultimate goal is to create a database that includes DNA samples from all of the rhinos in South Africa.

“Unlike similar work in which genetic databases provide an indication of geographic provenance, RHoDIS provides individual matches that, similar to human DNA profiling, is used as direct evidence in criminal court cases,” said Dr. Harper.

Black rhinos are now classified as endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), while white rhinos are classified as near-threatened. Regardless, more than 7,000 African rhinos have been illegally hunted and killed over the last decade.

Rhinos are becoming more and more sought after for their horns, which are considered by some to be cultural status symbols and are also used for medicinal purposes. In South Africa, rhinoceros poaching incidents jumped from just 13 in 2007 to 1,215 in 2014.

The researchers pointed out nine cases when DNA matches have led to the prosecution and conviction of rhino poachers. One perpetrator, in particular, received a sentence of 29 years.

Rhinoceros horns are often moved very quickly from the crime scenes to outside of the country. Because of this, the researchers are stressing that the forensic evidence and analysis must be expedited and internationally coordinated.

Dr. Harper says that there is tremendous support for this program from provincial wildlife and enforcement authorities, the national government, police services, national parks, and the majority of states where rhinoceros live within South Africa.

“Thanks to this support, we’ve seen rapid growth of the database into a representative source of rhinoceros genetic data for both forensic and management applications from its inception,” said Dr. Harper. “The unprecedented cooperation and support for the program from these authorities has been surprising and encouraging.”

The research is published in Current Biology.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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