Wildlife crime case solved with the help of RZSS scientists!

October 13, 2010 § Leave a comment

  Big news at the zoo at the moment is that scientists from the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (the charity that owns Edinburgh Zoo and Highland Wildlife Park) and TRACE Wildlife Forensics Network have helped to solve a case of rhino horn smuggling right here in the UK! 

  Last week Donald Allison who was caught attempting to smuggle rhino horn out of the UK was sentenced to a 1 year prison sentence at Manchester Crown Court following an investigation in which forensics work by RZSS and TRACE Wildlife Forensics Network was able to pinpoint the exact animal that the horn had belonged to. 

  The rhino horn was confiscated by the UK Border Agency when it was attempted to be smuggled out of the country through Manchester Airport in June, 2009 hidden in a fake antique figure.  Wildlife forensic scientists were able to analyse fragments of the horn and they were not only able to use the DNA from the horn to identify which species of animal the horn belonged to but also the individual zoo animal from which the horn had been taken. This helped investigators to solve the mystery the horn’s origin.

The horn came from a white rhino like this one. A white rhino's front horn can grow to be over a metre in length. Credit:RZSS

  The DNA from the horn was matched to a blood sample take from an African white rhino called ‘Simba’ who had been housed at Colchester Zoo.  He had been euthanised due to medical issues resulting from old age and had been sent to an abattoir as the law dictates.

  Dr Ross McEwing describes how 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.”

  International trade of any rhino parts for commercial purposes is illegal under international law (CITES – the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species).  The stolen horn would have been destined for the traditional medicines trade where it is believed to have numerous medicinal properties and where rhino horn is worth more than its weight in gold on the black marketPoaching for rhino horn is one of the main causes of decline in wild rhino populations.


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