World Rhino Day 2019: Myth of magical horns, weaponisation of DNA and the uphill battle against poaching

  • The introduction of RhODIS has helped in streamlining the process of tackling the evil of rhino poaching.

  • With rhinos being killed in such huge numbers globally, there was an urgent need for a pioneering step to bring out the rhinos from the brink of extinction.

  • Once a hotbed for poaching, Assam is gradually seeking to improve its anti-poaching infrastructure at various levels.

Announced by the World Wildlife Fund-South Africa in 2010 to celebrate World Rhino Day on 22 September every year, the event took off on a global scale both on online and offline platforms when Lisa Jane Campbell of Chishakwe Ranch in Zimbabwe and founder of Annamitici joined hands with creative director Rhishja Cota in 2011 to create a massive awareness to protect all five species of rhinos — black, white, greater one-horned, Sumatran and Javan — from extinction.

"World Rhino Day was actually started by World Wildlife Fund (WWF)-South Africa. However, we promoted the day to include all five species of rhino, which is very important because many people still do not know that three of the five rhino species are Asian rhinos," said Cota in an email from Tucson, Arizona, "It is always a wonderful feeling to see all five rhino species getting recognised and celebrated around the globe. Rhinos are a beloved and iconic species, so people were — and still are — excited when about World Rhino Day. It is an excellent opportunity for NGOs, zoos, and the like to raise funds for conservation efforts."

 World Rhino Day 2019: Myth of magical horns, weaponisation of DNA and the uphill battle against poaching

Survival battle for rhinos. Photo credit Udayan Borthakur

Annamiticus, named in memory of the extinct Rhinoceros sondaicus annamiticus, is an independent voice in the wildlife conservation community.

The need for such a day was primarily felt to ignite a consciousness globally on the need to save this beautiful animal of the Rhinocerotidae family from its greatest enemy on earth: Man. The saving of this endangered species essentially meant waging perpetual war against poachers who are increasingly becoming well-equipped and dangerous. If there is any doubt on the valuation of the illegal rhino horn market, according to a report in The Guardian, "the black market value of one kilogram is said to be USD 100,000—more than the price of platinum". Powdered horn can fetch up to €67,000 per kilogram.

Myth of medicinal value of rhino horns

In a study entitled Understanding utilitarian and hedonic values determining the demand for rhino horn in Vietnam published by Hoai Nam Dang Vu from the Vietnamese office of Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit and Martin Reinhardt Nielsen, Department of Food and Resource Economics, Faculty of Sciences, University of Copenhagen in March 2018, the extent of use of rhino horns for wide-ranging reasons has been deeply examined.

"From treating cancer and erectile dysfunction to managing hangovers, the horns of endangered wild rhinoceros are widely used as a medical cure-all in parts of Asia. A new Danish-Vietnamese study from the University of Copenhagen uncovers new reasons for why Vietnamese consumers buy illegal rhino horn," a press release on the study said.

"For us, the surprising trend is that horn is increasingly being used as a symbolic gesture to console terminally ill family members. The horns are intended to provide the ill with a final source of pleasure and to demonstrate that their families have done everything possible to help them," the communique quoted Nielsen as saying.

The rhino horn is also used for treating hangovers and as a status symbol in business relations.

Another piece on the use of rhino horns for sham treatment processes linked it with ancient Chinese medicines.

"According to traditional Chinese texts, such as Li Shih-chen's 1597 medical text “Pen Ts’ ao Kang Mu”, rhino horn has been used in Chinese medicine for more than 2,000 years and is used to treat fever, rheumatism, gout, and other disorders. It also states that the horn could also cure snakebites, hallucinations, typhoid, headaches, carbuncles, vomiting, food poisoning, and “devil possession.” While it is commonly believed to be prescribed as an aphrodisiac, this is not the case," the article in Save The Rhino said.

Not surprisingly rhino horn trade ranks among the most organised forms of environmental crime.

"The study suggests that information about the decline of rhinoceros populations and awareness about hunting being controlled by organised crime does not affect consumer demand. Dealing with the problem requires other strategies," Nielsen said.

Menace of rhino poaching

Figures released by the WWF on the number of poaching incidents in South Africa is staggering.

"In 2016 alone, 1,054 rhinos were reported killed in South Africa. This is a slight decline from 1,175 in 2015 and 1,215 in 2014. The 2016 figures represent a loss in rhinos of approximately 6% in South Africa, which is close to the birth rate, meaning the population remains perilously close to the tipping point," a WWF report said.

Rhishja Cota at Ujung Kulon National Park, Java, Indonesia, the only place in the world where Javan rhinos can still be found. Image courtesy Rhishja Cota

Rhishja Cota at Ujung Kulon National Park, Java, Indonesia, the only place in the world where Javan rhinos can still be found. Image courtesy Rhishja Cota

In Assam, the figures of rhino poaching are equally distressing. While in 2010, poachers killed 18 rhinos, eights were killed in 2011. In 2012, 2013 and 2014 a total of 26, 28, and 38 rhinos were killed respectively. The figures stand at three in 2015 and 20 in 2016.

With rhinos being killed in such huge numbers globally, there was an urgent need for a pioneering step to bring out the rhinos from the brink of extinction.

The RhODIS intervention

Cindy Harper, general manager and extraordinary lecturer, The Onderstepoort Veterinary Genetics Laboratory at the Faculty of Veterinary Science at the University of Pretoria in South Africa in an article named Robust forensic matching of confiscated horns to individual poached African rhinoceros in the scientific journal Current Biology gave a sneak peek of her pioneering work RhODIS, which stands for Rhinoceros DNA Index System, when expanded.

"In Africa, wildlife rangers, law enforcement officials and genome scientists have instituted a DNA-based individual identification protocol using composite short tandem repeat (STR) genotyping of rhinoceros horns, rhinoceros tissue products and crime scene carcasses to link confiscated evidence to specific poaching incidents for support of criminal investigations. This method has been used extensively and documented in the RhODIS (Rhinoceros DNA Index System) database of confiscated horn and living rhinoceros genotypes, applications to collect field and forensic sample data and RhODIS® biospecimen collection kits. These are made available to trained RhODIS certified officials to fulfill chain of custody requirements providing a pipeline to connect illegally trafficked rhinoceros products to individual poached rhinoceros victims," the article said.

The role of RhODIS in gathering incriminating evidence against suspects is in fact fast proving to be a critical requirement.

"Technology such as RhODIS has the power to provide the crucial evidence required for conviction, and also that this DNA technology is accepted as evidence in the court of law. One of the major challenges in tackling rhino poaching is that the suspects get released on bail due to lack of evidence," said Udayan Borthakur, head, Wildlife Genetics Division of Aaranyak.

"DNA technology can be a strong weapon against crime and rhinos need all the help they can get. Javan and Sumatran rhinos are each down to fewer than 100 individuals each. They are in the direst straits of all five species," Cota said.

RhODIS in India

Pathbreaking as it was in nature, the employment of genetically-linked techniques to convict suspects was a critical enhancement in the fight against rhino poachers.

"The tool was introduced in India in 2014 through a series of workshops to train officials of state forest departments and NGO members. Organised by WWF India and the Assam forest department, the workshops were planned as part of the Indian Rhino Vision (IRV) 2020 programme. One of the strategies of the IRV2020 is to protect the existing rhino population by introducing modern technological methods like RhoDIS to help curb poaching and scientific management of rhino population in Assam, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal," said WWF India senior coordinator, rhino conservation, Amit Sharma.

RhODIS training session at the Kaziranga National Park in Assam. Image courtesy WWF India

RhODIS training session at the Kaziranga National Park in Assam. Image courtesy WWF India

"In 2015, scientists from Wildlife Institute of India and officials from MoEFCC (Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change) visited South Africa as part of a training programme facilitated by WWF where they received practical experience and benefit of the tool was demonstrated by officials of Kruger National Park," Sharma said.

Following the training, an effort was made to establish a unit in India on a similar model.

"In 2016, RhODIS India was launched by the MoEFCC in partnership with Wildlife Institute of India, forest departments of Assam, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh and WWF India. WII houses the RhODIS laboratory for the DNA database. With financial support from WWF India, RhODIS India was rolled out in the country and the support has been used to make the RhODIS laboratory functional for the initial three years," he said.

Discussions to extend this support is ongoing and the MoEFCC has provided the assurance to allocate funds for RhODIS from the next financial year.

"The progress of RhODIS implementation is reviewed by the MoEFCC on an annual basis," Sharma said.

RhODIS and Assam

Home to the greater one-horned rhinoceros, as per 2018 census in Assam, the Kaziranga National Park has 2,413, Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary has 102, Orang National Park has 101 and Manas National Park has 34 of these majestic pachyderms.

"Assam has the largest population of the species and has seen regular incidences of poaching, which for smaller reintroduced populations such as Manas is even more serious in terms of maintaining the population viability. Thus, increasing the rate of conviction in case of rhino related crimes is essential to curb poaching and therefore a system similar to RhODIS can have great applicability," said Borthakur.

But that's easier said than done.

"Capturing each of more than 2,500 rhinos in Assam to collect genetic samples is not feasible and demand resources that are not available both at government and non-government levels. We need modification in approach from RhODIS implemented in South Africa, in terms of sampling strategy. Non-invasive sampling, or obtaining genetic samples from an animal without physically capturing it is in practice, by way of using sources of DNA such as rhino dung, or faeces," he said.

Obtaining genetic specimen from rhino dung at Jaldapara National Park, West Bengal. Image courtesy Arup Kumar Das/Aaranyak

Obtaining genetic specimen from rhino dung at Jaldapara National Park, West Bengal. Image courtesy Arup Kumar Das/Aaranyak

Once a hotbed for poaching, Assam is gradually seeking to improve its anti-poaching infrastructure at various levels.

"The Assam Forest Department is taking effective steps to curb rhino poaching and the results are seen in the last few years where the poaching number are much reduced. One of the important steps the department is taking is the implementation of RhODIS, creation of a genetic database of the rhinos which will help in tracing back the source of a seized horn. This will help in increasing the conviction rate as it will serve as definitive proof. In this direction, we have trained the staff in our national parks. In future, more forensic kits will also be made available so that the creation of the database becomes easier," Assam Minister for Fishery, Excise, Environment and Forest, Parimal Suklabaidya told Firstpost.

The introduction of RhODIS has helped in streamlining the process of tackling the evil of rhino poaching.

"With RhODIS India’s launch in 2016, the Assam Forest Department has actively implemented the programme and a number of criminal cases from Assam have been investigated under the RhoDIS protocol. A specially designed forensics field kit has been assembled and provided to all the rhino bearing areas. The Assam Forest Department has already formed Crime Investigation Teams in all the rhino bearing areas. Members of these teams, which include staff from all the rhino bearing areas of Assam, have been trained on the usage of kits and protocols such as crime scene management and forensics investigations set under RhODIS," said Sharma.

Learning about RhODIS at the Kaziranga National Park in Assam. Image courtesy WWF India

Learning about RhODIS at the Kaziranga National Park in Assam. Image courtesy: WWF India

"Experts from Wildlife Crime Control Bureau, North East Police Academy and WWF INDIA provided the training. Similar training is being planned to improve the strength of crime investigators in all the rhino bearing areas of India. Enforcement agencies such as the state police departments have been informed by the MoEFCC regarding the implementation of RhODIS in India. Overall, there is a need for improving coordination between various divisions of the forest departments, and enforcement agencies for efficient utilisation of this tool," he said.

Role of conservation organisations

"The Wildlife Genetics Laboratory of Aaranyak has pioneered the development of DNA fingerprinting technology for greater one-horned rhinos and is the first laboratory in the world to successfully implement genetic census of the species. The genetic markers that would be required for the implementation of RhODIS are already standardised by this laboratory in 2012 and have published the same in international scientific journals," the head of Wildlife Genetics Division of Aaranyak, said.

"The laboratory conducted the first-ever genetic census of rhino in the world by using dung as genetic samples to determine the number of rhinos in Gorumara National Park of West Bengal. This study set the benchmark for all further studies and standardised a set of genetic markers required for identifying individuals from any type of biological samples, including dung, horn, hair, tissue and blood etc. This technology is available in Assam itself and can be implemented at a minimal cost if multiple agencies at both government and non-government level coordinate," he said.

The Wildlife Genetics Laboratory of Aaranyak has been providing wildlife DNA forensic investigation service to the Assam Forest Department since 2014 through approval of the state's chief wildlife warden.

Wildlife Genetics Laboratory of Aaranyak situated in Guwahati. Image courtesy Aaranyak

Wildlife Genetics Laboratory of Aaranyak situated in Guwahati. Image courtesy Aaranyak

"The laboratory has already solved many rhino poaching related cases. Some examples of forensic support by Aaranyak include DNA based matching of rhino horn confiscated from suspect to a scene of the crime, differentiating the origin of poaching of confiscated rhino horn between Assam and West Bengal rhino bearing protected areas, assisting in the identification of genuine yet highly decomposed rhino horns in government treasury etc.," Borthakur said.

However, he clearly expressed displeasure over the limited role that Aaranyak has in the whole exercise.

"The Wildlife Institute of India has been given the responsibility of implementing RhODIS in Assam, jointly with WWF India and Assam Forest Department. However, after several years of initiating this, the actual application of this technique is yet to be seen. The actual application of the technology would have been faster through the involvement of local partners in Assam, already having established credibility of implementing such a system for rhino crime mitigation," Borthakur said.

On its part, apart from imparting training, the WWF India has provided with financial support to help establish the RhODIS laboratory at Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun and has been supporting field implementation of the programme and functioning of the laboratory.

Role of government

"The whole purpose of RhODIS is to improve the conviction rate. The direct link of seized horn etc to the sources will definitely help the authority to prove the case and pitch for conviction. The Government of Assam is very serious about the conservation of this endangered species. Steps are taken to expand the protected area network for conservation. In terms of protection, Assam is one of the leaders. Various organisations like WII, WWF, Aaranyak etc. have collaborated in the process," said Tejas Mariswamy, Divisional Forest Officer, Assam State Zoo in Guwahati.

However, both Aaranyak and WWF India differed on the intensity of involvement of the government machinery in the RhODIS programme.

"DNA technology is in use worldwide for human as well as other species to provide such evidence crucial for conviction and implementation of this technology should have been taken more seriously by the government," the Aaranyak member said.

WWF India, however, was not critical of the intent of the government.

"The governments at the Centre and state (Assam) have shown an interest which has resulted in adopting and employing RhODIS. The three rhino bearing states have adopted the RhODIS programme and is extending full cooperation. RhODIS in India is not only targeted to check rhino poaching but has also been considered for population management. The DNA analysis using rhino dung samples is being undertaken helps in understanding the genetic health of a population. It is envisaged that the analysis will aid state governments in planning and executing management programmes. The findings can also aid in translocation of rhinos for expanding the range of the rhinos in India and also strengthen the genetic composition in the existing populations," Sharma said.

Bottlenecks in implementing RhODIS

"Financial resources in replicating RhODIS as implemented in South Africa could be a major constraint unless the sampling strategy is modified. Training of field level staff of Assam Forest Department in handling crime scenes and proper collection of forensic samples need to be improved before we start seeing a long term prospect through the implementation of RhODIS," Borthakur said.

WWF India also pointed out a plethora of issues that the RhODIS implementation effort has encountered in India, particularly in Assam.

"Problem of assured and adequate funding, lack of coordination among the enforcement agencies, absence of sufficient inter-state and international cooperation for exchange of evidence and involvement in legal proceedings, lack of adequately trained and equipped crime investigation teams with sufficient manpower are some of the challenges affecting the implementation of RhODIS," Sharma said.

Hiding no emotion about the magnitude of the task ahead, 2012-Indian Forest Service officer Mariswamy said, "The capacity building is crucial and will be quite a task."

Roadmap for the future

Although poaching of rhinos is not so easy today as it was earlier, one can hardly let the guard down.

"In the last few years, the effort to reduce rhino poaching has been strengthened by the government and we have started seeing positive results. However, constant monitoring in terms of the modification strategy adopted by the poachers as well as by the network associated in poaching is required," said Aaranyak's Borthakur.

WWF's Sharma vouched for "improved intelligence, strategic patrolling, regular security audits to identify gaps in rhino bearing areas, better coordination with enforcement agencies, active community engagement, adequate and timely funds, implementation of the National Rhino Strategy and Action Plans on a timebound manner".

While Cota from Annamitici stressed upon "awareness of the rhino horn trafficking crisis and education about rhinos," DFO Mariswamy went a step further when he said, "The future for the rhino is Assam."

Updated Date: Sep 23, 2019 15:57:51 IST