BUILDING THE DATABASE: Vets and researchers take blood and DNA samples from a darted rhino in south-eastern Kruger National Park.

One of the powerful new weapons in the arsenal of the anti-poaching fight is science.

Researchers at the University of Pretoria’s veterinary faculty have set up a unique DNA database for not only South African rhinos but also for animals from neighbouring countries – and possibly from as far afield as Asia in the future.

Project head Dr Cindy Harper says that originally it was believed that rhino horn was useless for DNA analysis because it was composed of hair. However, research had shown the rhino horn was, in fact, a series of cells or tubules interspersed with melanin and calcium… and useable for DNA analysis.

So far, the DNA of more than 5 000 rhinos has been included on the database – and hundreds of DNA kits have been issued to trained people in the field, so that samples can be taken at poaching incidents and used as evidence in prosecutions. The university has worked closely with wildlife and forensic experts to establish a clear “chain of evidence” procedure that will stand up in court.

Although only a few cases using DNA evidence have been brought – most of which are still under way – there have been encouraging successes in the courts.

The value of the DNA data is that it can be gleaned not only from the poached animal itself, but also from the clothes and vehicles of poaching suspects.

Best of all, though, is the possibility that being explored by the SA authorities, that end-user rhino horn in consumer products can now be directly linked to a poaching incident.

There’ll be no place to hide from the long international arm of the law, and the anti-poaching campaign may have found its biggest deterrent.