Guwahati, March 3: The Union ministry of environment, forests and climate change is creating a database comprising DNA profiles of rhinos in the country to help investigate cases involving poaching and seizure of rhino horns.
The tool, Rhino DNA indexing system (RhoDIS), has proved to be particularly helpful in South Africa and other African nations in arresting and prosecuting poachers.
The veterinary genetics laboratory at the faculty of veterinary science of the University of Pretoria in South Africa developed the tool. It was first used in a rhino poaching case in 2010 in which a Vietnamese citizen was sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment for having horns of poached rhinos in his baggage when he was apprehended at O.R. Tambo International Airport in South Africa.
Official sources said the DNA profile would be developed based on the tissue samples of dead rhinos and those tranquillised for treatment and translocation, from the mucous membrane (that envelopes rhino dung) collected from the field for free ranging rhinos and rhino horns available in the custody of state forest departments.
"The system will help build scientific and irrefutable evidence to investigate cases related to rhino poaching. The DNA profile will provide information about the place of origin of the animal. The database will also be useful in management of rhino population and translocation of rhinos to other sites, using genetic characteristics for analysis," a senior official in the ministry said.
Deputy inspector-general (wildlife) of the ministry S.P. Vashishth issued a letter on RhoDIS to the authorities on February 25. In India, rhinos are found in Assam, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh.
Pilot work, based on mucous membrane, will be initiated in Dudhwa National Park in Uttar Pradesh and Pobitora wildlife sanctuary in Assam to finalise methodologies, especially sampling techniques.
The ministry said Wildlife Institute of India (WII) would be the centralised laboratory to generate/develop the DNA profiles from tissue/mucous membrane, store it in the database and prepare wildlife forensic reports.
Initially, the DNA database will be developed from samples collected from zoos/rescue centres. This will also help standardise the methodology for crime investigations. Thereafter, DNA investigation will also be carried out for samples collected from rhinos.
A forest department official said conviction in rhino poaching cases was very low in Assam and it could be improved if efforts were put in the right way. Many offenders in such cases were out on bail and indulging in poaching again.
The ministry said since Aaranyak, a wildlife NGO based in Assam, had gathered experience in developing DNA profiles, it asked the authorities to use the genetic markers developed by them.
The ministry said since WWF-India had taken a lead role in fostering partnership with South African authorities on rhino crime investigations, they would look after the implementation of the RhoDIS programme in the country. The ministry has asked all zoos in the country to collect the samples (tissues, blood and faeces) of rhinos and send them to the genetic laboratory within the next three months.