Forensics to support the fight against wildlife crime

Updated on 26 November 2022


Pretoria/Geneva, 6 November 2013 - The first international rhinoceros DNA sampling training workshop was held in South Africa on 5 and 6 November 2013.
The purpose of the  workshop was to enhance the world’s enforcement capacity to address the wave of rhinoceros poaching that has resulted in the killing of more than 800 animals in South Africa since January 2013. 
The South African Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) and the University of Pretoria’s Veterinary Genetics Laboratory (VGL), in collaboration with the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime (ICCWC),   hosted a rhinoceros DNA sampling workshop at the Southern African Wildlife College near Hoedspruit in South Africa, which includedfield training in the Kruger National Park.
Law enforcement officers from each of the 11 African rhinoceros range states, as well as from China, Thailand and Vietnam, and South African National Parks, participated in the workshop.
The capacity of law enforcement officers working along national borders, at border posts and in protected areas to detect, investigate and prosecute offenders involved in rhinoceros poaching and illegal rhinoceros horn trade has been boosted through a series of lectures and field visits to the Kruger National Park to partake in the physical DNA sampling of rhino that had been poached within the Park.  Special focus was given to the increased use of rhinoceros horn DNA sampling to combat wildlife crime.
“South Africa welcomes the hosting of an international rhino DNA sampling workshop since we are the country most seriously affected by rhino poaching that is largely driven by international wildlife trafficking. The presentation of this workshop supports the decision by CITES at the 16th Conference of Parties in Thailand in March 2013 that all range States, transit and consumer States should strengthen compliance and enforcement,” said the Deputy Director-General: Biodiversity and Conservation in the Department of Environmental Affairs, Mr Fundisile Mketeni.
Law enforcement officers will emerge from the training better equipped with the necessary tools and knowledge to enable them to effectively counter illegal wildlife trade. This includes specific investigative techniques and the increased use of wildlife forensics, which can be applied during follow up actions that should be taken when seizures are made, crime scenes are investigated, information is being gathered or evidence is being presented to court.
The officials have been provided with focused training on the identification of rhinoceros horn, rhinoceros horn DNA sampling and wildlife crime scene investigation.   Participants have also been educated in the utilisation of ICCWC tools and services to enhance their wildlife crime investigation capabilities.
ICCWC is a collaborative effort by the Secretariat of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), INTERPOL, the United Nations Offfice on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the World Bank and the World Customs Organization (WCO) to bring coordinated support to the national wildlife law enforcement agencies and to the sub-regional and regional networks that act in defense of natural resources.
In collaboration with its ICCWC partners, the UNODC commissioned the development of the ICCWC Wildlife and Forest Crime Analytic Toolkit,  which provides countries with a technical resource that enables them to undertake a national assessment with the aim to understand the main issues relating to wildlife and forest offences, and identify technical assistance needs.The toolkit was launched in 2012, with the financial backing of the World Bank Development Grant Facility, to effectively combat illegal wildlife trade, which is estimated at between $16 and $27 billion a year, including timber and marine species.
Some of the most lucrative illegal wildlife commodities include tiger parts, elephant ivory, rhino horn, and exotic birds and reptiles, while the recent World Bank study Justice for Forests recognizes that illegal trade in timber deprives States of over $10 billion in annual revenue.
CITES Secretary-General John E. Scanlon said: “We are supporting countries deploy the technologies and techniques they need to fight back against escalating wildlife crime. Drawing on South Africa's expertise, we are expanding the use of forensic technologies, with DNA test results often being critical for securing successful prosecutions. These collaborative efforts directly respond to the decisive actions taken by CITES Parties earlier this year to better combat wildlife crime.”
The recently developed eRhODIS™ application was also introduced and launched during the workshop with Samsung as the exclusive technology partner. This application provides the information technology backbone to support RhODIS®.
Dr Cindy Harper, Director of the Veterinary Genetics Laboratory at the University of Pretoria , said: “RhODIS® continues to play a vitally important role supporting rhinoceros crime prosecutions in South Africa and its implementation and utilisation Internationally could play a key role in bringing persons involved in international wildlife crime syndicates to book.”
The workshop was made possible by funding generously provided to ICCWC by the Government of the Netherlands.
Background information on rhino poaching and smuggling of their horns
The illegal trade in rhinoceros horn continues to be one of the most structured criminal activities currently faced by wildlife enforcement authorities.
There are clear indications that organized criminal groups are involved in rhinoceros poaching and illegal trade in rhinoceros horn. The CITES Conference of the Parties, at its 16th meeting, held in Bangkok, Thailand, from 3 to 14 March 2013, stressed the need for increased cooperation amongst source, transit and destination countries affected by the illegal killing of rhinoceros and the subsequent illegal trade in rhinoceros horn.
In consultation with rhinoceros range States, the ICCWC identified the need for training on rhinoceros horn DNA sampling for law enforcement officers as a priority.  A proposal was submitted to the Government of The Netherlands for consideration and funding.  The Netherlands Government approved the proposal and generously made funding available to support a capacity building intervention to combat illegal rhino horn trade.
Considering that South Africa maintains the Rhino DNA Index System (RhODIS®), and that suitable experts to deliver the required training are available in the country, the CITES Secretariat on behalf of ICCWC,  requested South Africa to host the capacity building intervention.
RhODIS® was developed to assist in addressing the increase in rhino poaching, smuggling of rhinoceros horn and recovery/confiscation of horn and related products by consumer States by the Veterinary Genetics Laboratory at the University of Pretoria's Faculty of Veterinary Science.  It involves the collection of DNA samples of live and poached rhinoceros across the country as well as all stockpiled horns, to create a DNA database with the unique profiles of individual animals.
The database presently includes over 10,000 samples from black and white rhinoceros from Africa. These have been collected over the last 3 years and have provided important forensic evidence which have played a vital role in a number on prosecutions.
For media inquiries contact:
Albi Modise, Chief Director: Communications, Department of Environmental Affairs on tel +27 12 310 3123 or Mobile + 27 83 490 2871 email: [email protected]
Juan Carlos Vasquez, Communication and outreach officer, CITES Secretariat - UNEP - United Nations on tel  (+4122) 917 8156 (direct) or Mobile: (+4179) 552 2732 email: [email protected]