Hot on the poachers' trail

Published: Wednesday 15 October 2003

Having made a mark as a valuable tool in human forensic studies, genetics will now solve the puzzle for endangered wildlife too. Teams of researchers from Taiwan's Central Police University and the uk's Institute of Zoology in London are developing "fingerprint" tests that may soon put rhino poachers out of business by helping wildlife protection agencies to track smuggling routes.

These tests study the genetic makeup and chemical profile of the rhino horn to identify the animal's species as well as the region -- and even the specific game reserve -- where a particular rhino was killed. According to New Scientist magazine, in which the studies were published, the genetic or chemical signatures of the rhino horn are sought out in products such as powdered Asian medicines and (handles of) Yemeni ornamental daggers.

The demand for rhino horns -- especially in traditional medicines and as a supposed aphrodisiac in the Asian region -- has driven the animal to extinction. The body part is said to sell for as much as us $21,300 a pound. A catastrophic 90 per cent drop in the last six decades has left less than 3,000 black rhinos in Africa.

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