India starts work on Rhino DNA database to curb poaching
India is creating a DNA database to hold genetic information of its rhino population in a bid to curb poaching of the endangered species whose horns are in great demand in the illegal wildlife trade.
The wildlife division of the environment ministry has directed the states where the mammal is found to start collecting samples.
India’s around 3000 rhinos face significant poaching threats, especially in Assam where 90% of the population is concentrated.
The exercise that kick-started this winter will take 6-7 months to complete, according to SP Vashisht, inspector general (wildlife) at the environment ministry.
The database will help the authorities to trace back the traded rhino parts to the area where the animal was poached.
“The database will ultimately help us establish where a rhino part originated from. It will be an important step in curbing poaching,” Vashisht said.
Rhino habitat in India spreads across Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Assam.
Assam already started a pilot project to create a database of its Rhinos, following countries in Africa that also face a massive poaching threat.
Countries like South Africa already have such a database in place. However they rely on blood samples of rhinos to obtain a DNA sample. This requires tranquillising of individual rhinos.
The Indian effort will rely on rhino dung to extract DNA, sources said, adding even a few milligrams is sufficient for the test.
The drawback with this method is that one Rhino’s sample may be collected more than once.
However, for the DNA database to work scientists only require a profile of the gene pool of a particular area not necessarily profiles of individual rhinos. The gene pool in regionally isolated populations is distinct.
Rhinos are a schedule I species under the Wildlife Protection Act, which accords them the same level of protection as the tiger.
Rhino population in India plummeted to less than 100 at the turn of the century, but by 2012 their numbers had grown to 2700, according to the WWF India.
The WWF India is funding the first two years of the Rhino DNA database project. It also piloted the project in Assam with the help of experts from South Africa.
Scientists at the Wildlife Institute of India where the samples will be tested are already developing a similar database for tigers, which are also threatened by poaching.