A workshop for collaborative action planning, organised by the Veterinary Genetics Laboratory (VGL), will take place from 18 to 24 June and will include representatives of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), the Wildlife Trade Monitoring Network (TRAFFIC) and the Wildlife Forensics Network (TRACE).
With rhino poaching and universal wildlife crime becoming increasingly prevalent on a global scale, one of the aims of the workshop will be to promote enhanced collaboration and cooperation among laboratories that provide forensic DNA testing of rhinoceros and support wildlife crime investigation in their respective countries and regions. Other partners, such as the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), will also attend the workshop.
The workshop will provide an opportunity for scientists to interact face to face and experience the field conditions related to rhinoceros-related crime in South Africa, including the impact of criminal activities, the sampling strategy and applied methodologies. They will be introduced to the Veterinary Genetics Laboratory's RhODIS®* programme and will see how it can be translated for international utilisation. Representatives of each participating body will get the opportunity to showcase their respective roles and expertise in wildlife crime investigative techniques and discuss opportunities and challenges in their own environmental contexts.
At a scientific level, this will allow the technical experts to network, communicate, draw on each other's strengths and provide support where specific needs are identified. It will furthermore provide opportunities to share and discuss current methodologies in terms of tests, sampling methods and quality assurance requirements that apply to in-country and transnational wildlife crime.
Global standardisation of DNA sampling and testing methodology will strengthen legal acceptance of results and draw on the collective expertise of research scientists in the field. The workshop is intended as an initial exercise to establish cooperation at a purely scientific level. The networks that will be built, the standards set and the methodologies shared will enable more rapid exchange of information, data and sample flows among scientific institutions responsible for providing forensic support for rhinoceros crime investigations. This will also make a meaningful contribution towards implementing Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) decisions on utilising forensic science to investigate the illegal trade in rhinoceros horn.
The workshop, which will include a field trip into the Kruger National Park to give participants first-hand exposure to forensic crime scene management, and a visit to the VGL at the Faculty of Veterinary Science, is expected to actively promote wider cooperation among experts in wildlife DNA forensics, DNA data sharing among laboratories and support for international cooperation by means of a networking approach to wildlife forensics.
*The VGL's RhODIS® programme was recently announced as one of the prize winners of the Wildlife Crime Tech Challenge, an initiative of USAID, in partnership with the National Geographic Society, the Smithsonian Institute and TRAFFIC, which identified innovative scientific and technological solutions that help combat wildlife trafficking. The RhODIS® challenge proposal specifically addressed the internationalisation of the programme to extend cooperative forensic DNA investigation of rhinoceros-related crime beyond South Africa. The hosting of the workshop is a significant first step in the process.