13 Dec
  • By The Boucher Legacy
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In Conversation With Dr. Cindy Harper

In conversation with Dr Cindy Harper

Dr. Cindy Harper, from the University of Pretoria, is catching rhino poachers one DNA sample at a time using cutting-edge technology. What was once thought to be an impossible task has evolved into a complex DNA index system that is the cornerstone of rhino poaching prosecutions. Here’s what happened when our very own Alastair Hewitt spoke with the distinguished pioneer.

What are the DNA program objectives and how does it link to conservation and prosecution? 

The RhODIS program was initiated to support the investigation of rhinoceros crime by providing DNA evidence linking the DNA from a poaching scene to DNA found on the clothing or equipment of poachers or seized horns. The program, having successfully fulfilled this role, has expanded its scope to provide an inventory of living rhino and rhino horns in large stockpiles in both Namibia and South Africa, and supports the environmental authorities in both countries with this data. The genetic information gathered on individual animals and populations across most of the rhino range is being applied to support the genetic management of individual populations and could be used as one of the tools to support the management of the meta-population. As rhino numbers decrease due to poaching and other factors including drought and disease, the genetic and reproductive health of the remaining population becomes most important.   

How many rhino are currently housed on the DNA database?

The total number of items, i.e. live rhinos, poached rhinos, and stockpile horns on the RhODIS database now is 72 560. I don’t know how many individual animals this relates to since some animals are sampled multiple times and multiple horns are sampled from each animal when they are dehorned. The horns are identified in stockpiles. The total number of electronic sample collection submissions, i.e. individual sampling collections using the app, is 39 488 of which 31 675 are horns identified. The horn stockpile inventory is thus a very significant part of the database information at this stage.

How many years of prosecution have been linked to this program?

Unfortunately, that is almost impossible to tell since we do not get feedback on what the outcome of each report is. We supply it to the SAPS and media coverage of sentences only provides the names of the accused and not the case numbers. This is a great opportunity for a student of a master’s degree in law to follow up on cases and reports and determine the specific impact, or not, of DNA testing in rhino cases.

Can we still only process 24 samples per day or has this increased?

We are processing about 90 to 100 samples per day now, in spite of two staff members leaving the VGL. This is quite a challenge since we are now very understaffed. Our IT staff member is packing kits and we have a few students helping out, which helps.

What new insights and facts have been discovered through this DNA processing and strategic approach?

The RhODIS concept is really the only way to track individual animals and products through a legal or illegal supply chain. Genetic data has become essential in tracking and managing threatened species of fauna and flora globally. RhODIS has certainly set a precedent in how to apply genetic data to the investigation and prosecution of animal-related, and specifically wild animal-related crimes – it is internationally recognised as such. Poached horns move very rapidly in order to reach the international market. The horn may be shipped intact, in which case microchip identification may assist, but very often the horn is cut and the pieces separated, and can only be identified using DNA testing. This also links different pieces of horn between illegal shipments, connecting them to each other when there may not be other evidence suggesting that the shipments are connected.  

There are less Rhino left sadly so perhaps we could have every living Rhino on the database?

It is absolutely possible to have every rhino on the database. The only rhinos considered to be wild are those in parks including Imfolozi and Kruger, and these are being intensively managed, dehorned, and notched with numbers decreasing rapidly. Thus, all rhinos are likely to be handled and sampled at least once and can be added to the database. 

Dehorning is prolific. So should this make it easier to collect more samples?

Yes, the animal must be sampled at least once and the horns must be identified and sampled by DFFE officials before entering stockpiles.

I met Cathy Dreyer recently in the Kruger National Park and they are trying to dehorn all their rhino. What are your comments?

Yes, this measure is being undertaken in almost all populations now since it definitely reduces poaching and provides an opportunity for sampling for the database. Cathy is such an excellent person for this position and the Kruger National Park can only benefit from her being there – she is really helpful and we may be able to improve the sampling of carcasses with her support.

What does the roadmap look like going forward?

We will continue to support investigations of rhino crime by providing information from the database and DNA evidence as we have been doing. I would like to look at the impact of the work by supporting a study following specific cases from sample collection to the final outcome in court to understand the role of DNA evidence in court cases. I believe this will be extremely valuable going forward to highlight the positives and give insight into those aspects where we can improve. This will impact not only the rhino but other species as well.

We also need to expand our genetic management program to support the general health of rhino populations. RhODIS is in the unique position to support this by having access to samples of such a large proportion of the whole population of animals and can, therefore, contribute to the management at a meta-population level. In order to ensure that this receives the attention it needs, I am planning to appoint a postdoc with experience in population analysis to run the program and have our IT developer set up a web-based system that provides genetic information directly to rhino managers. I need to look at succession planning and find young, enthusiastic scientists to take the program forward.

We, therefore, have a number of ideas that will benefit both the forensic (reactive) and genetic health (proactive) conservation of rhinos using one program, hopefully highlighting the value of the RhODIS program and providing a platform for sustainability.