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DNA sequencing and a growing database of threatened and endangered rhino species in Africa has been improving prosecution of poachers, according to a new study.

The genetic evidence has been used in more than 5,800 cases, and has specifically linked horns and other artifacts to specific rhino carcasses in 120 of those criminal proceedings, report the scientists in a Current Biology paper published today.

The database is called the “Rhino DNA Index System,” or “RhODIS” for short. The initial reference database includes more than 3,000 individuals from the white rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum) family, as well as nearly 900 black rhino examples (Diceros bicornis). Using short tandem repeat (STR) genotyping at 23 loci, they found they could identify individuals with accuracy similar to that of individual humans, they report.

“Unlike similar work in which genetic databases provide an indication of geographic provenance, RhODIS provides individual matches that, similar to human DNA profiling, is used as direct evidence in criminal court cases,” said Cindy Harper, first author of the paper, of the Veterinary Genetics Laboratory at the University of Pretoria in South Africa.

The paper highlights nine cases in which the DNA evidence was used in court. In the earliest case, from 2012, three horns were tied to two C. simum corpses found in Mozambique – and it led to a prison sentence of 29 years and three months. In the most recent case, from last year, a horn of a D. bicornis was matched to blood on a carpet found in Kenya – leading to a sentence of 11 years, they report. The other seven forensic cases all led to convictions, as well.

Poaching has been skyrocketing over the last decade. For instance, in South Africa, a mere 13 incidents were reported in 2007 – but that increased to more than 1,200 in 2014. The scientists said their forensic DNA work may help deter illegal hunting.

“Robust, statistically significant genotype matches, prosecution, conviction and sentencing of wildlife traffickers in multiple cases validate the DNA matching approach and with sufficient public disclosure could discourage future crimes and rhinoceros species,” they conclude, in supplemental information attached to their paper.

The research was supported partially by the Russian Science Foundation, as well as St. Petersburg State University.

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