The plight of the world’s rhinoceros is well-known, but no less sad a tale because of it. From estimated global populations of more than 500 000 at the start of the 20th century, there are less than 29 000 rhinoceros left in the whole world – less than 1% of the world’s rhino population remains. Most of these are found in Southern Africa.


At the University of Pretoria’s Veterinary Genetics Laboratory (VGL) at Onderstepoort, Dr Cindy Harper and her team have developed a ground-breaking technique to collect and catalogue DNA from rhinos and rhino horns. This will help police and wildlife investigators link poachers to crime scenes, leading to more convicted poachers and fewer rhino’s poached in Southern Africa.


In 2012, the South African government passed legislation stating that all captured rhinos and horns should be sampled and sent to the VGL for inclusion in the database. This means by law samples must be collected whenever a rhino or a rhino corpse is moved, shot or tagged. Evidence submitted in this way has led to the conviction of several local poachers and Vietnamese agents working with them.

Context, Stats and Figures What is the scale of the problem?

Worldwide, rhino populations are down to around 29 000 individuals across five species: white 20400, greater one-horned 3345, black 5055, Sumatran 100, Javan 58. Of these populations, only the white rhinoceros is not considered to be a threatened species, and the black, Sumatran and Javan rhinoceros are all on the IUCN critically endangered list. The vast majority (around 25 000) of these rhinoceros are found in South Africa.

How does the RhODIS system work?

In order to link poachers to crime scenes, investigators must be able to connect mutilated or killed rhinos to rhino horns and other items to each other. The only reliable way to do this is through a genetic fingerprinting system that produces a unique code or DNA pattern for each rhinoceros. This is at the heart of the RhODIS system.

How does the eRhODIS app work?

Harper’s team has developed a smartphone app that functions alongside the RhODIS system, known as eRhODIS. Built on the Android operating system and launched late in 2013, eRhODIS provides guidance for users of the RhODIS kits to streamline the sample collection and submission process. It ensures that collected field data is accurate and immediately available to the laboratory and the investigating authorities.

Why are rhinos poached? Who are the poachers?

Rhinoceros have been poached for decades, mostly for use in traditional Chinese medicine. Powdered horn is dissolved in boiling water and drank to ward off a myriad of ailments such as fever and gout. An ancient medical text recommends powdered rhino horn to treat snakebites, hallucinations, typhoid, headaches, carbuncles, vomiting, food poisoning, and ‘devil possession’. In Vietnam, it is used as hangover cure or to treat cancer, or simply as a symbol of status.

International recognition for RhODIS

The RhODIS initiative is gaining traction internationally thanks to advocacy work by Dr Harper, a partnership with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), and the success of the system itself. RhODIS has been formally recognised by The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) African Rhino Specialists Group for its pioneering role in tracking poached wildlife and wildlife products. Click here for FULL Information