Trying to solve the global problem of the Illegal wildlife trade requires solutions from the many different authorities and stake holders involved along the trade route from source to consumer country. As an accredited wildlife forensic laboratory, the Australian Centre for Wildlife Genomics (ACWG) at the Australian Museum Research Institute (AMRI) plays a key role in providing scientific evidence about seized trade items. A recent example of our work is the development of new, simple and rapid tests to identify true rhino horn from fake material. Having the ability to rapidly identifying true horn in the trade will enable agencies progress seizures quickly and enable successful enforcement and prosecution outcomes, not only in Australia but throughout Southeast Asia.

AMRI staff with scientists at the Institute of Ecology and Biological Resources, Hanoi
AMRI staff with scientists at the Institute of Ecology and Biological Resources, Hanoi Image: Greta Frankham
© Australian Museum

2015 has been the worst year on record for rhino poaching, with 749 already slaughtered in South Africa alone for their horn. Rhino horn is highly valued in countries such as Vietnam and China, and traded for between USD $65,000 to $100,000 per kg, due to erroneous beliefs that it can cure a range of ailments, from the common hangover to cancer. Its high value also means horn is often used as a symbol of status and many business deals are done over rhino horn and rhino horn products.

The staggering increase in rhino poaching over the last decade has seen wild populations begin to crash. In 2014 it was believed that more rhinos were poached in South Africa than were born, raising serious concerns for the long term viability of the two African species as well as the other three Asian rhino species, which are also seriously threatened by habitat loss.

Determining real rhino horn from fake is crucial to progress any criminal investigation that may arise from a seizure. While this type of forensic analysis is regularly carried out within a week or two at the ACWG, due to the limited resources to process seizures in many of the consumer countries such as Vietnam, this process can take many weeks to months and results in a very low rate of conviction.

Recently ACWG staff members Kyle Ewart and myself were delighted to accept an invitation from our colleague Dr Ross McEwing to travel to Hanoi in Vietnam to spend a week working in the forensic labs of the Institute of Ecology and Biological Resources (IEBR). This lab has been mandated by the Vietnamese government to carry out all wildlife forensic work resulting from any seizures in Vietnam, which made it a perfect place to spend a week training four IEBR staff in how to implement the rapid species identification test developed by Kyle as part of his recent honours project in collaboration with the University of Sydney.

During our stay we had unprecedented access to seized horn samples working with 70 rhino horn samples from a couple of recent seizures. We learnt the value of simple but smart science and realised that high tech complicated tests using the newest technology aren’t the tests that are going to make a difference in these frontline labs that may not have the resources available to them as we do in Australia. We therefore took the opportunity to develop our test further, by optimising it on the equipment platforms already available in the IEBR laboratory. Providing a test that is flexible across different but commonly used platforms increases its utility and the potential for it to be rolled out to different labs across Southeast Asia facing similar problems with wildlife trade.

We had a very productive week working alongside the IEBR staff and were able to determine species identification for over 80% of the horns sampled during our stay, these were predominantly White Rhino, as well as some Black Rhino horns. As a result the IEBR staff are now trained in a method that can provide a preliminary species identification to authorities within 24 hours.

This international capacity building opportunity showcased the value of the scientific expertise and collection resources available at institutions such as the AMRI and highlighted an area where AMRI can help make a real difference in our region. It is hoped that this is the first of many more successful collaborations with South East Asian wildlife forensics labs.

Dr Greta Frankham
Australian Centre for Wildlife Genomics, AMRI

More information:
Dr Ross McEwing is the Director of TRACE Wildlife Forensics Network and employed by the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland. This work was joint funded by AMRI and the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland. We also would like to thank Dr The Dang Tat who is the head of Molecular Systematics and Conservation Genetics at the Institute of Ecology and Biological Resources for his support of this work.