Monday, June 27, 2011

DNA-profiles for all Southern African rhinos

The University of Pretoria has joined the country's wildlife parks in the fight against poaching with a massive project to profile the DNA of all Southern Africa's rhinos.

In what will be a world first, the university's department of veterinary science and SANparks, which manages all South Africa's national parks, will compile a database of the DNA profiles of all the country's 22000 black and white rhinos, as well as of rhinos in Zimbabwe, Namibia and Botswana.

The database will enable investigators to match rhinos that have been killed by poachers to horns found in their possession.

It is likely to lead to a larger number of poaching convictions and tougher sentencing. The project began informally in 2009 with fewer than 100 DNA samples but the database now contains more than 2000.

Cindy Harper, head of veterinary science at the University of Pretoria, said: "In the last month the project received about 1000 DNA profiles from rhino populations in national parks and the private sector. They were from poached animals, from stock piles and from hunting trophies."

She said the primary intention in the compilation of the database was to support poaching investigations. She said the university was supplying SANparks with DNA sampling kits.

The kits were developed by SANparks' environmental crime investigation unit, the police forensics laboratory and the university's veterinary genetics laboratory. Harper said the university has produced and distributed the first 1000 kits with the support of a R100000 grant from SA Breweries.

SANparks CEO David Mabunda said the project would make it more likely that poachers will be charged not only with possession of rhino horn but also with illegal hunting and theft.

"This will go a long way towards changing the trend of suspects found in possession of rhino horn being charged only with possession because the horns in their possession will be linked to carcasses lying somewhere in a national park or reserve," he said.

He said the DNA kits were expected to give prosecutors more ammunition in demanding stiff sentences for poachers. A total of 333 rhino were lost to poachers last year and 182 have been killed since January.


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