RhODIS Rhino DNA database puts poachers in the cross-hair

Top Quote The Onderstepoort Veterinary Genetics Laboratory (VGL) at the University of Pretoria has developed a ground-breaking technique to collect and catalogue DNA from rhinos and rhino horn which could lead to more convictions of poachers and reduce rhino poaching in Southern Africa. End Quote
  • (1888PressRelease) July 13, 2016 - Known as RhODIS, Rhino DNA Index System, the database stores the DNA, the unique genetic 'fingerprint' of every sampled rhino or horn. The database enables investigators to link poachers to crime scenes, to rhino which has been harmed or confiscated horn, with other evidence. "The RhODIS is similar to the human DNA database used by police and the American Combined DNA Indexing System (CODIS)," advises project manager Dr Cindy Harper. "We take a tiny amount of DNA, less than 20mg of horn is needed, and this could be used as evidence in court. To date we have compiled more than 200 forensic reports based on our data, and had six successful high-profile convictions."

    As one example, the RhODIS database helped identify the origin of confiscated horn from a Vietnamese trafficker less than six weeks after the rhinoceros was poached in the Kruger National Park.

    RhODIS, currently holds the DNA of more than 20,000 rhinos in Africa and it's rapidly growing. SAPS investigators, prosecutors, Green Scorpions, veterinarians and wildlife officials have been trained on the collection of DNA to ensure correct collection. "The collection and handling of samples for forensic investigation needs to be done meticulously in order to comply with chain-of-custody requirements," comments Harper.

    Government and international backing
    Dr Cindy Harper and her team began their work in 2009, and in 2012 the South African government passed a legislation stating that all captured rhinos and horns should be sampled and sent to VGL for inclusion in the database.

    Through Dr Cindy Harper's advocacy work in partnership with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Africa Rhino Program, RhODIS is gaining international recognition. The system and database is formally recognised by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and IUCN African Rhino Specialist Group and all major African Rhino range states.

    Sample collection kits
    Three types of sample collection kits have been created: a forensic kit for recovering DNA from poached animals, a routine kit for when a rhino is relocated, notched or undergoes any intervention and a horn kit designed to collect DNA from recovered horn. "The database also holds DNA samples from weapons and clothing from suspected poachers, evidence that can link suspects to specific poaching incidents," adds Harper.

    Making use of tech
    Working alongside the database, eRhODIS is a smartphone app that has been developed to provide guidance for users of the sampling kits to streamline collection and submission. "We wanted to ensure the data collected in the field is accurate and immediately available to the authorities," adds Dr Harper.

    Full story: http://www.researchmatters.up.ac.za/researcher-projects/view/31

    Video: https://youtu.be/QSytjz_s7TI

    Images (credit VGL):
    Workshop gallery
    VGL lab gallery
    Dr Cindy Harper: https://www.dropbox.com/s/x10rq7d53w8g6n8/Cindy%20Foto.jpg?dl=0

    Written and distributed for the University of Pretoria by Boomtown. For more information please call Kimberley Clare Ogden on 076 321 8918 or email kimberley ( @ ) boomtown dot co dot za dot

    Notes to Editors
    The six high profile convictions are: Xuan Hoang, a Vietnamese citizen, two Mozambiquan citizens, a Zimbabwean poacher, and two South African poachers.

    The Onderstepoort Veterinary Genetics Laboratory at the Faculty of Veterinary Science, Onderstepoort was formerly known as the Blood Typing Laboratory and changed to DNA typing in 2001. The laboratory is a service-driven and self-funding unit and is run on current and general business principles. It fulfils various roles including an academic support role for postgraduate students interested in applied veterinary genetics, research of genetic diseases in various animals and development of tests and protocols that can be applied in the service division. 

    The service division consists mainly of a DNA profiling and parentage testing component, forensic DNA testing in animals, testing of specific genetic diseases and traits in animals, genotyping for population analysis and some pathogen testing of equines via the laboratories association with the Equine Research Centre.

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