Rhinoceros DNA database helps nail poachers along with traffickers

Rhino horns along with powders, made by grinding down the horns, are illegally sold across the globe as trophies along with fake medicines.

One case, which involved three horns by two carcasses, led to a sentence of 29 years, said the team of researchers led by Cindy Harper, director of the Veterinary Genetics Laboratory at the University of Pretoria in South Africa.

“Traditionally the punishment for poaching — which is usually more lucrative than drug trafficking — was trivial,” said Steven O’Brien, a co-author of the brand-new study along having a professor at Halmos College of Natural Sciences along with Oceanography at Nova Southeastern University in Florida. “of which was a very little slap on the hand, perhaps a little fine of a thousand dollars or maybe a week or two in jail, yet of which’s all changing right now with the DNA evidence.”

‘Vigilant along with strong culture’

Rhino horns along with powders are worth more, kilogram for kilogram, than gold, diamonds or cocaine, according to O’Brien. In South Africa, rhino poaching incidents increased by just 13 in 2007 to 1,215 in 2014, the research indicates.

“South Africa carries a vigilant along with strong culture against the taking along with poaching of the wildlife species, particularly rhinos along with elephants along with large, charismatic species,” O’Brien said. yet the dramatic increase in rhino killings, accomplished in some cases by wealthy criminals helicoptering into habitats with automatic weapons along with chain saws, has overwhelmed the African courts.

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“Most of the prosecutions were difficult to conclude because these guys could say anything when they’re caught having a piece of horn,” O’Brien said. Criminal “excuses” have included pretend ignorance — not knowing of which was a rhino horn — along with claims of which the item is usually an ancestral museum piece.

“If you could basically prove of which they actually were in possession of material of which was by a poached rhino in recent time, then of which closes the circle of evidence,” he said.

Human crimes are prosecuted based on DNA left at a crime scene, so why not apply of which logic along with technology to rhino crimes?

Though This kind of idea may be obvious, O’Brien said, what was not obvious was how to create a rhino database — in wild along with remote African regions — of which could make a direct genetic match.

In South Africa, Harper “trained the entire wildlife anti-poaching staff to not only collect materials by poached animals yet to enter them into an iPad along having a little program of which RhODIS designed of which specifically gets uploaded into the database as soon as they come into Wi-Fi range,” he explained.

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The goal is usually for all rhinos to be within the RhODIS system. The South African government made of which obligatory for law enforcement officers to collect DNA samples by every crime scene as well as every living rhino handled by academic researchers, conservationists or veterinarians. Kenya soon followed suit. additional countries within the southern part of the African continent, including Botswana along with Zimbabwe, have begun to do the same.

Yet there’s another essential element necessary for DNA evidence to stand up in court, O’Brien said.

Match probability

There’s always some chance of which completely unrelated DNA could be a genetic match to crime scene evidence. This kind of is usually called “match probability,” he said.

To win a court case, then, prosecutors need to prove of which match probability is usually extremely low in order to prevent a Great lawyer by getting up along with saying the match of DNA by a rhino to DNA on confiscated items held by a criminal “is usually just by chance,” O’Brien said. “This kind of is usually the kind of thing a lawyer would likely say. They’re wrong, yet of which’s what they would likely say.”

O’Brien enlisted the help of “the best computational biologists I know”: a group working at the Theodosius Dobzhansky Center for Genome Bioinformatics at St. Petersburg State University in Russia.

Asked how St. Petersburg’s programmers got involved with rhinos, O’Brien laughed. After working at the US National Institutes of Health for nearly four decades, he retired a few years ago along with was looking for an adventure.

“Mostly, I was looking for programmers to get into the genetics field,” he said, so he traveled to St. Petersburg along with recruited about 20 of them. “If they were within the US, they would likely all be hired by Google or Facebook or Silicon Valley places,” he said. “yet over there, they’re just trying to learn a trade of which will make them valuable to the international genetics community.”

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The Dobzhansky Center programmers developed “state of the art methods” for application of match probability statistics.

In nine case studies presented within the brand-new research paper, the programmers’ statistical style shows of which the likelihood of a chance match is usually “on the order of one in a million,” O’Brien said. “So This kind of rhino thing was exciting for (the programmers) because of which was a clear application of the methodology of which they had perfected.”

Bas Huijbregts, African species manager at the globe Wildlife Fund, believes This kind of “very interesting mix of different people” is usually one reason the brand-new study along with the RhODIS system are so strong.

Protecting the species

“of which’s researchers by research institutes, by law enforcement agencies, by rhino specialist groups, by conservation groups, by all different horizons along with different countries,” said Huijbregts, who was not involved within the brand-new study. All of these contributions were necessary to validate RhODIS as a law enforcement tool of which could be used internationally.

By helping populate the RhODIS system with data, South Africa has given RhODIS importance along with recognized evidence by the system in its courts, he noted.

With 20,000 total rhino samples — gathered by crime scenes along with research labs — within the database today, the system is usually becoming “very significant” while helping paint a picture of international criminal networks, Huijbregts said.

There’s still work to be done when of which comes to learning how to effectively build along with use RhODIS, particularly with regard to “how data along with information flows happen between different organizations along with different law enforcement agencies,” he said.

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He is usually hopeful for the future, however. Rhino poaching may be continuing, yet Huijbregts sees “more along with more efforts on protecting the species,” including more professional rangers along with more professional forensic tools.

More effort is usually needed on the demand side, he said, with rhino products sold to the “rising middle-income classes in newly emerging economies” such as Vietnam along with China. In these countries, rhino powders are marketed as “traditional” hangover cures along with cancer treatments.

“This kind of has nothing to do with traditional Chinese medicine; of which’s just newly invented branding for rhino products,” Huijbregts said. With completely fake medical usages popping up regularly, conservationists work hard to understand why people buy these products along with quickly debunk the science, showing of which there’s no real medical value to rhino horn or rhino horn powder.

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of which’s all about “creating of which not cool anymore, like of which’s not cool to drive along with drink or smoke anymore,” Huijbregts said. “of which type of cultural shift needs to happen in those markets.”

Ultimately, Huijbregts believes “of which at some point, This kind of current wave of killings will diminish.” along with so he worries more about additional threats to the rhino’s long-term survival.

“A lot of people don’t know of which there’s actually a few species of rhinos left. along with three of those a few are critically endangered,” he said. (of which is usually believed of which there were once many rhino species, though the number is usually unknown.) For instance, there may be only 60 individual Javan rhino left within the wild as of 2015 estimates, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. In Asia, there are roughly 3,500 one-horned or Indian rhinos along with fewer than 100 Sumatran rhinos, while about 26,000 white along with black rhinos remain in Africa.

As leftovers by an ancient past, rhinos are not only important for their own intrinsic value, they perform ecological functions in Africa along with Asia along with serve as a style for economic development (within the form of tourism) for the countries where they roam.

Conservationists working with governments in African along with Asian countries are devising various plans to preserve these phenomenal beasts, Huijbregts said. “yet we have to be very, very quick.”

Rhinoceros DNA database helps nail poachers along with traffickers

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