Scientists from the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) and TRACE Wildlife Forensics Network based in Edinburgh helped investigators bring a criminal to justice after they provided genetic proof that pinpointed the exact animal in a smuggled rhino horn case.

Under international law (CITES – the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) international trade of any rhino parts for commercial purposes is illegal. Yesterday (5 October 2010), having pleaded guilty to smuggling charges on the basis of DNA evidence presented, Donald Allison was sentenced to a 1 year prison sentence at Manchester Crown Court. The judge described Allison’s actions as a serious offence.

photo courtesy of RZSS

The illegal rhino horn was confiscated by officers from the UK Border Agency at Manchester Airport in June, 2009. The horn had been hidden in a fake antique figure. Once discovered, investigators contacted wildlife forensic scientists to analyse fragments in order to confirm the species of animal it was from and identify which zoo rhino had been targeted.

From the individual DNA profile generated from the seized horn, the mystery of where it had come from was solved when it was matched to a blood sample. This revealed that the rhino was an elderly African white rhino, known as “Simba” that had been housed at Colchester Zoo.  He had been euthanised due to medical issues relating to his age and had then been sent to an abattoir as the law dictates. (Please note the accompanying photo is not of Simba)

As Dr Ross McEwing continued, scientific techniques such as these can provide investigators with crucial evidence; “When dealing with DNA profiles, we can generate very powerful results. Just like with humans, a rhino DNA profile allows trace samples to be matched back to the source individual. So when we were approached to help with this case we were confident that we could provide investigators with the proof they needed. We are delighted that our work has helped lead to a conviction and it proves once again that forensic genetics is an important weapon in the fight against wildlife crime.”

Destined for the traditional medicines market in China, where it is thought to help treat a wide variety of illnesses ranging from reducing fevers to stopping nosebleeds and preventing strokes, rhino horn is processed into pills, tablets, treatments and tonics and sold worldwide. The African white rhino is once again in decline as a direct result of poaching for their horn. Demand remains high and powdered horn is worth more than gold on the black market.