Anti-poaching lab facing crisis

2011-05-28 00:00

THE South African laboratory at the forefront of the high-tech battle against rhino poachers is facing a severe funding crisis.

The Veterinary Genetics Laboratory (VGL) ,which is based at University of Pretoria’s Onderstepoort campus, is spearheading efforts to establish a comprehensive international rhino DNA database and is using cutting-edge forensic science to help convict poachers.

But to date, the rhino DNA project — dubbed RhoDIS after the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) — has received only R100 000 in funding, donated last year by SA Breweries.

“The R100 000 was used solely to make up 1 000 DNA kits for collecting samples,” VGL’s director, Dr Cindy Harper, said this week. “As to the rest who pledged funding, nothing … Absolutely not a single cent from anybody.”

In January, South African National Parks (SANParks) announced the development of the rhino DNA sample kit and said funding for the project would be “provided by SANParks and other private funders”.

According to a press release issued at the time, “SANParks will use funds from the ivory sale of 2009 to contribute to the project.” None of the funding has materialised.

Harper says the rhino DNA project has “easily cost us close to R1 million”.

The laboratory, and its staff of four, are largely dependent on private funding and income from VGL’s equine genetic testing service to do their work.

“The lab is run like a business. The university does not give us a single cent, a salary or a single piece of equipment. They give us office space. Horses are our main income and that money is used towards the [rhino project],” Harper says.

“The bigger the project gets, the more difficult it gets to make it sustainable.”

Since the end of 2009, VGL’s staff have processed and added nearly 1 000 DNA profiles for individual rhinos to the RhoDIS database.

They are also actively involved in nearly 50 rhino poaching cases.

“We get all the forensic samples from each poaching incident,” Dr Harper explains. “It is not just horns, but samples taken from clothing and tools used, that we then try and match to a carcass.”

Last year, as a direct result of their work, a Vietnamese bagman for a rhino-poaching syndicate was jailed for ten years.

Xuan Hoang was caught at O.R. Tambo International with seven rhino horns. The horns, which had been taken from four rhino, were linked through DNA testing by VGL to a poaching incident that occurred just days before the arrest.

Harper believes South Africa has to develop its own forensic and DNA capabilities to combat wildlife crimes.

“Rhinos are a good example of what needs to be done to profile other animals. We have to build that capacity here. We can’t depend on people overseas.”

But despite the funding constraints, she is determined to continue with the project.

“The reason we’ve done it is because of our passion for it … Giving up at a point where it is starting to make a difference is a pretty stupid thing to do, so we’ll continue with it, but we definitely need to look at making this sustainable.”

There are about 20 000 rhinos in South Africa which is home to 70% of the world’s rhino population.

So far this year, 162 rhinos have been reportedly killed by poachers in South Africa, far higher than the same period last year. Seventeen alleged poachers have been shot dead and 99 arrested.

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