Poaching is an egregious crime, and in particular, poaching white and black rhinos, who are teetering on the brink of extinction, is even more abhorrent. Punishment should be swift for poachers, but the reality is that bringing justice for these creatures is a rather complicated process. RhODIS, which stands for Rhino DNA Index System, was created by the Veterinary Genetics Laboratory of the University of Pretoria to address such difficulties by establishing a centralized genetic database to trace trafficked goods to individual poaching incidences, increasing the chance of successful convictions during forensic trials.
DNA samples of rhinos, both poached and living, are collected by researchers and a unique genetic marker is created for each living rhino, like a genetic fingerprint. When trafficked rhino parts are intercepted, the DNA can be sampled and compared to the database. RhODIS DNA provides forensic backing to a poaching trial in the same way that recovering a killer’s DNA at a murder scene can be a smoking gun. You would think that simply possessing rhino goods would provide enough evidence for a conviction, however much like convictions for crimes committed against humans, the prosecution needs to build a case and establish the connection between the accused and the crime.
Linking poachers to specific rhino DNA has led to an increase in severe sentences, according to a paper published by a consortium of international researchers (O’Brien et. al). Evidence from RhODIS has been used in a total of 120 cases successfully, with the first successful conviction occurring in 2010. The convicted individual was sentenced to 10 years in prison because the prosecutors were able to link the trafficked rhino part that the man was attempting to smuggle into Vietnam to a recent poaching event where a ranger had collected a DNA sample. There are 20,000 DNA samples in RhODIS’s database, 5,800 of which have been used at trial, so each sample has the potential to be a pivotal piece of forensic evidence (O’Brien et al.).
It is important to note that several factors limit the effectiveness of RhODIS, many of which have to do with how difficult it is to stop poaching as a general practice. First, RhODIS test kits are only in use in South Africa, which is the only African country to collect DNA samples for RhODIS’s database, as well as the only country where RhODIS is part of poaching persecutions. That isn’t to say that RhODIS isn’t filling a need; poaching in South Africa rose sharply between 2005 and 2015, despite stringent regulation and protective measures being put in place. Therefore, any tool to improve the chance of a successful conviction and deter poaching is welcome, however, in an ideal world, any country with rhinos would be able to use RhODIS. Secondly, poachers have to be caught with rhino goods before they leave South Africa for their prosecution to be possible, and intersecting poached goods is an uphill battle, no matter the animal. So, while the impact of RhODIS may appear constricted, it is important to consider the circumstances that the creators of RhODIS cannot account for. Despite these circumstances, RhODIS is a truly innovative technology already transforming the ways in which poachers can be held accountable for their actions.
eRhODIS. (2020). “Home”. https://erhodis.org/
O’Brien, S., Harper, C., Ludwig, A., Clarke, A.B., Makgopela, K., Yurchenko, A., Guthrie, A., Dobrynin, P., Tamazian, G., Emsli, R., Heerden, M.V., Hofmeyr, M., Potter, R., Roets, J., Beytell, P., Otiende, M., Kariuki, L., Toit, R.D., Anderson, N., Okori, J., Antonik, A., Koepfli, K., & Thompson, P. (2018). Impeding the rhinoceros surge of slaughter in southern Africa with DNA genetic forensic matching.
Harper, C., Ludwig, A., Clarke, A., Makgopela, K., Yurchenko, A., Guthrie, A., … & Hofmeyr, M. (2018). Robust forensic matching of confiscated horns to individual poached African rhinoceros. Current Biology, 28(1), R13-R14.
Photo by Courtenay Crane