At least 102 one-horned rhinos have been poached, and 209 suspected poachers have been arrested between 2008 and 2018 in India as per the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau of India. However, the rate of conviction has been far from satisfactory. In Assam, from 2000 to 2010, there have been only three recorded convictions. The number of convictions grew significantly between 2011 and 2017 to 20. The improvement in convictions can be attributed to better crime investigations and legal presentation of the cases in addition to Government’s timely decision and strong actions towards curbing poaching that includes setting up of fast track courts to deal with wildlife cases in the state of Assam. It is anticipated that proper use of RhODIS, a forensic tool can help improve investigation of wildlife crime cases.
RhODIS® or the Rhino DNA Index System, is a wildlife forensics tool that was specially developed for investigating wildlife crime cases. RhODIS® was initiated by the Veterinary Genetics Laboratory of the University of Pretoria by creating a database using the unique DNA profile of individual rhinos. The DNA profiles of all the rhinos on the database system link a seizure to a crime incident and aid in prosecutions through scientific evidences based on forensics. RhODIS® was first used in a rhino poaching case in South Africa in 2010 and resulted in the conviction of an offender..
In 2016, the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC), Government of India in partnership with Wildlife Institute of India (WII), the forest departments of Assam, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh, and WWF India launched the RhODIS® India programme. The programme was introduced through a series of workshops on RhODIS® organized by WWF India and the Assam Forest Department with experts from South Africa.
Wildlife Institute of India houses the RhODIS® India laboratory that carries out all the analyses and maintains the DNA database as notified by the Government of India. In addition to creating the DNA database from horn, tissue, and blood samples, rhino dung was also used.
RhODIS uses a DNA indexing system whereby genetic sequences which are created to get a signature unique to each individual rhino. In India, the laboratory protocols have been finalized by testing different types of samples like tissue, blood and dung. The RhODIS® India database now has the DNA profiles of more than 500 individual rhinos and around 400 of these are derived from dung samples collected from all the rhino bearing areas of India.
The Assam Forest Department identified staff to be trained in the use of RhoDIS and investigation of wildlife crime cases in the rhino bearing areas by
forensics experts. In addition, the forest staff from the rhino bearing areas of West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh have also been introduced to the protocols of RhoDIS and field dung sampling.
A total of 16 rhino poaching cases has been investigated and reported under RhODIS® India till July 2020, and more than 60% of these cases were from Assam alone. The first case under the RhODIS® India programme was investigated in 2017 when a horn was seized near Guwahati in Assam, and the samples were sent to WII for analysis. Later, two carcasses were recovered in North Bengal, and samples from these two were also sent for analysis. After completion of the analyses, the seized sample could be linked to one of the recovered rhino carcasses successfully. This was the first-ever case that successfully connected a seizure to a wildlife crime case by providing necessary evidence required to build a legal case resulting in conviction.
Sri. P Sivakumar, IFS and Director Kaziranga NP says, “RhODIS is an advanced tool to investigate and prosecute offenders in rhino poaching cases. Kaziranga has trained some staff on the RhoDIS field protocol and is using this tool for investigating rhino crime cases for the last couple of years.”
Further scope in India
RhODIS® has proven to be a successful tool in aiding crime investigation and strengthening legal presentations. In India too, the effectiveness of the tool has been understood as it is not only strengthening the cases through forensics investigation but is also helping improve the entire crime investigation procedures. In India, through the RhODIS® programme, a study of the genetic health of different rhino populations in the country will also be conducted which can help undertake better management of these threatened species.