As a poached rhino carcass lies in Kruger, his assassin checks two suitcases on a flight bound for Singapore. The trip begins smoothly, but when the luggage is put through an x-ray scanner they are flagged suspicious and opened for searching. Inside lies 3 million rand worth of rhino horn, and investigators are called to the scene. After authorities extract a small sample from the horn they enter it into the RhODIS database, a Rhino DNA Indexing System recording the DNA of rhinos in southern Africa. And two weeks later, when the poached carcass is found and sampled, the database connects the two, solving the crime. RhODIS, developed by the Veterinary Genetics Laboratory at the University of Pretoria, is a groundbreaking initiative, connecting poachers to their crimes and defending the rhino population.

One of three test kits can be used to connect a poacher to their crime. Picture courtesy of the University of Pretoria.

One of three test kits can be used to connect a poacher to their crime. Picture courtesy of the University of Pretoria.

Rhino poaching has increased for a number of reasons. The rhino’s most significant attribute is its horn, believed to have important healing powers in ancient Chinese medicine. From hangover cures to snakebite treatment, the horns can be ground and ingested to heal a variety of symptoms. And though modern research doesn’t support any of these myths, a market for rhino horn is still booming years after its onset.

According to the Oxpeckers Center for Investigative Environmental Journalism, in 2013 1,108 rhinos were poached but only 343 poaching arrests were made, and in 2014 1,245 rhinos were poached but only 386 poaching arrests were made. Poachers are able to plan and execute their crimes with little consequence. The University of Pretoria was determined to change to these numbers through the creation of RhODIS.

The approach is simple. A small sample of rhinoceros horn containing DNA is taken to develop a genetic barcode exclusive to the animal. Along with DNA information this barcode includes the gender and species of the rhino (black rhino or white rhino), and is stored in a large database. This database can be utilised to connect the poached rhino to its horn, and identify the poacher to the case. Furthermore, it can be used to determine whether a horn is legal or poached.

Dr Cindy Harper, founder of RhODIS, notes that “The database also holds DNA samples from weapons and clothing from suspected poachers, evidence that can link suspects to specific poaching incidents.” Out of the 25,000 rhinos residing in South Africa, there are over 15,000 rhinos currently included in the database. And with more than 400 individuals trained in RhODIS, 200 cases have utilised the database already.

The University of Pretoria's Veterinary Genetics Laboratory. Picture courtesy of the University of Pretoria.

The University of Pretoria’s Veterinary Genetics Laboratory. Picture courtesy of the University of Pretoria.

To connect a poached animal to its horn RhODIS has developed three different sample collection kits, used dependent on the situation. The horn kit is used when collecting DNA from a detached horn, the forensic kit is used to uncover the genetic barcode of a poached animal and the routine kit is used when a rhino is relocated or undergoes an intervention.

Dr Harper and her research team have made it easier than ever to join the RhODIS movement with their smartphone app named eRhODIS. The app instructs users of the sampling kits and allows them to send their findings directly to investigators. “We wanted to ensure the data collected in the field is accurate and immediately available to the authorities,” Dr Harper says. Get a sampling kit, download the app, it’s never been easier to protect our rhinos.