DNA-based tool to probe poaching

Assam studies Rhino Indexing System developed in S. Africa

Published - May 28, 2014 05:33 am IST - Guwahati

Two South African wildlife experts on Tuesday gave forest officials at the Assam State Zoo a demonstration of the Rhino DNA Indexing System, a DNA-based forensic tool. The RhODIS, used to investigate and prosecute suspects in cases of rhino poaching, has been on the Assam government’s wish-list. The tool involves the collection of each individual rhino’s unique DNA profile into a database which can be referenced when presenting legal evidence in cases of rhino poaching.

The two experts — Cindy Harper, Director, Veterinary Genetic Laboratory of University of Pretoria, and Rod Potter, a professional wildlife investigator associated with South Africa’s National Wildlife Crime Intervention unit — will also visit the Kaziranga National Park to educate its forest officials on the RhODIS’ utility in crime-scene investigation.

Assam’s Environment and Forest Minister Rockybul Hussain said the government had plans to introduce RhODIS in the State, where poachers often went unpunished for want of irrefutable evidence.

Mr. Hussain said poachers killed and dehorned 41 rhinos in Assam and about 1,000 rhinos in South Africa in 2013. However, he observed, South Africa had successfully cracked down on rhino poaching by international gangs and carried out effective prosecution. As many as 16 rhinos have been killed in Kaziranga so far this year.

Mr. Hussain said the Assam government has been exploring the option of setting up fast-track courts to carry out speedy trials against poachers. The RhODIS would help provide concrete evidence before the trial court, as required for conviction in poaching cases, he said. The State has now planned to introduce RhoDIS in collaboration with World Wide Fund for Nature — India to build a database of the DNA profiles of translocated, poached or naturally-dead rhinos.

The Veterinary Genetics Laboratory at the Faculty of Veterinary Science of the University of Pretoria has over 5,000 rhino samples on its DNA database and has contributed towards over 400 probes in the east and southern African region.

Principal Chief Conservator of Forest and Chief Wildlife Warden in Assam R.P. Agarwalla said poaching had been posing a major threat to rhino conservation efforts. It was the market in China and Vietnam, which use the rhino horn for various purposes, including medicinal, that the poachers sought to tap, he said.

Fourteen poachers have been killed, six arrested and seven firearms seized so far this year. The rhino population in Assam is estimated to be 2,553. Of this, the KNP has 2,329, the Rajiv Gandhi Orang National Park 100 rhinos, the Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary 93 rhinos and Manas National Park 31 rhinos.

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