Mbombela — A rhino DNA sample kit is expected to help prosecutors be even tougher on those caught with rhino horns.
If DNA tests positively link a horn to a specific rhino carcass, suspects will no longer get away with only a charge of possession, they will also be charged with the illegal hunting of rhino and theft.
"DNA evidence can now be used to link suspects found in possession of horns with the actual carcass, irrespective of how much time has passed," said Advocate Johan Kruger, national head of the Organised Crime component in the office of the National Director of Public Prosecutions.
Chief executive of South African National Parks (SANParks), David Mabunda, said the kit would also assist all rhino owners and managers to document individual rhinos in their care.
"We would like to encourage them to take full advantage of this opportunity so that we may be able to better protect our rhinos from criminals," he said.
Mabunda said information gathered from the DNA samples would be stored on a central database accessible to registered professionals. A full DNA sample is estimated to cost about R1 680 per rhino, but Mabunda said initial DNA tests and registration would be done free of charge.
"This will also be freely available in the unfortunate case of a rhino poaching incident," he said.
The department of genetics at Onderstepoort developed the DNA kit in collaboration with SANParks, the NPA and the Hawks.
The DNA kit was revealed to members of the National Wildlife Crime Reaction Unit from the NPA, Hawks, SANParks and environmental management investigators from provincial conservation authorities who recently attended a crime scene management course.
The course provided prosecutors with first hand experience of the challenges investigators face in securing and safe-guarding a scene in the veld. They also learned the methods used to search for, locate and collect specific evidence material on a scene.
Mabunda said SANParks and private funders were funding the DNA project.
He said SANParks would use funds from ivory sales in 2009 to contribute to the project. South African Breweries has also already sponsored R100 000 towards the project. No date has been set on when the DNA kits will start being used.
Mabunda said last month alone, South Africa lost 21 rhinos, while 31 arrests were made. In 2010, 333 rhinos were killed.
"The loss of 333 rhinos to poaching in 2010 was a devastating loss for SANParks. We are determined to curb that in 2011. Anyone who is involved in poaching at whatever level will be a prime target for our investigations and we will leave no stone unturned in this respect, including going for the kingpins of these operations," said Mabunda.