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Science in the service of rhino security

Science in the service of rhino security

Science in the service of rhino security

Wild Horizons Wildlife Trust contributed to war on rhino poaching with the collection of tissue samples which will enable DNA analysis and a detailed database on each individual animal.

Poachers are waging a relentless and bloody war against the rhino throughout southern Africa and from some media reports it would seem nothing can be done to stop them. So it’s heartening to report that Zimbabwe is playing a crucial role in the struggle against this Far Eastern led industry.

Among the country’s various veterinary and conservation organisations working in unison, Victoria Falls-based Wild Horizons Wildlife Trust is playing a valuable role by assisting in a programmememe that employs the latest scientific techniques.

In 2010 Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority embarked on a dehorning operation in Matabeleland North and South to protect the remaining rhino in its parks. Together with the Department of Veterinary Services, Wildlife Vet Unit, WHWT assisted in the operation of taking blood and tissue samples from each animal for DNA analysis while it was immobilized.

While Parks are taking immediate action to remove the commercial target – the horn -from the rhino, WHWT is working towards securing a more robust future for them. For many years rhino have been translocated into safer areas to build new populations, and this will continue. But by doing this we are changing the natural genetic mixing process that is so vital for creating and maintaining a healthy population.

So the Department of Veterinary Services Wildlife Unit, aided by funding sourced by WHWT, is building a database for each of the dehorned rhino, which will enable ZPWMA to gain a broad picture of the genetic relationships of the rhinos. This will enable them to make more informed decisions on which individuals to move in future translocations.

Recent technological advances mean that DNA can now be extracted from the horn itself, providing more ammunition for the fight against poaching. If a rhino horn is confiscated from the black market, a simple DNA analysis on the horn allows comparison to any of the existing rhino DNA records to see if it has a Zimbabwean origin.

Although it’s too late for that particular animal, it helps build a valuable picture which can result in the prosecution of the individuals involved in the supplying the horn. In fact a recent conviction has already been obtained by other agencies using this technique.

Fact File

Rhino horn is composed primarily of keratin, the same substance that makes up fingernails and hair.

In many eastern countries rhino horn is sought after as a medicine for ailments as well as an aphrodisiac.

There is absolutely no scientific evidence that rhino horn has any medicinal or aphrodisiac properties. The demand is perpetuated by centuries of cultural misinformation about its benefits. For the same reasons, demand for tiger products has brought them close to extinction.

Dehorning is a controversial practice but appears to have little or no negative effect on the behavior or wellbeing of the rhino.

Currently the IUCN lists the Black Rhino as Critically Endangered and the White Rhino as Near Threatened.

Read more articles from this issue:
Zambezi Traveller (Issue 07, Dec 2011)

Read more about the region in our destination guide:
Victoria Falls