Wildlife Crime Tech Challenge

Photo Credit: USAID
The Challenge Blog

Spotlight: The University of Pretoria's RhODIS is protecting rhinos by using DNA profiling

Prize Winner the University of Pretoria’s Veterinary Genetics Laboratory is fighting wildlife crime

Welcome to an installment of our Spotlight series, each highlighting one of our 16 Prize Winners working to combat wildlife crime around the globe. Find out about all our Winners here.

Rhinos are in trouble, targeted by poachers and traffickers to meet the high demand for rhino horn in areas like Southeast and East Asia. Criminal actors are drawn to the trade by the high prices that rhino horn consumers will pay. At roughly $1000 per kilogram, rhino horn has the highest value by weight of any illicit product traded globally. Further, penalties for poaching are low, and forensic evidence to prosecute criminals has been difficult to transfer from countries where products were seized to the countries where the poaching took place.

A new method to extract DNA from rhinoceros and from rhino horn is changing the way these crimes can be tracked. The Rhino DNA Index System (RhODIS) was developed by South Africa’s University of Pretoria’s Veterinary Genetics Laboratory and partners in 2010. The system uses genetic sequences called “short tandem repeats” to produce a kind of barcode unique to individual rhinos, providing a means of liking trafficked rhino products to their origins.

“The amazing thing that we found from our data is how quickly these products move around the world…The RhODIS database of rhino DNA can be exchanged in real time rather than DNA samples having to be shipped,” explains University of Pretoria’s Alan Guthrie. With this DNA analysis, RhODIS can identify the location of the poached rhino, linking a trafficker with the crime scene and helping investigators uncover trafficking routes and criminal networks. RhODIS includes standardized sampling methods, training programs, and an electronic app for collecting sample data. New molecular technologies are continually incorporated into RhODIS as part of research and development.

RhODIS has been supported by South African National Parks, private rhino owners in South Africa, the Namibian government, the Lowveld Rhino Trust in Zimbabwe, and wildlife authorities in Malawi, Uganda, Zambia and Kenya. The RhODIS database includes over 20,000 rhinos from all these countries. RhODIS is also deploying in India.

The hope is that RhODIS will become the global standard for rhino crime investigation and that the team at the University of Pretoria will develop the next generation of RhODIS through genome technologies, touching all countries with rhino populations. “DNA forensics is a critical tool in the fight against wildlife crime,” notes Dr. Sara Carlson, a Biodiversity and Natural Resources Specialist for USAID.

Find out about the Challenge’s talented Prize Winners and their game-changing innovations to fight wildlife crime here. All of our Prize Winners, including the University of Pretoria, are looking for partners, organizations, individuals, and funding agencies that can help them scale their solutions. If you would like more information, get in touch at info@wildlifecrimetech.org.



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