By Aislinn Laing
South Africa is leading the way in using science to crack rhino poaching and wildlife trafficking rings by tracing DNA from the market back to the bush.
When a suspected rhino poaching kingpin was stopped in a sting operation near Johannesburg, the empty bag police found in his car initially indicated that they would have to let their quarry go.
But dust in the bottom of the bag still contained minute traces of the hacked-off horns which a tip-off to detectives suggested the suspect had just sold.
It was evidence enough to link him to the deaths of two rhinos in the Kruger National Park and round up the poaching syndicate he allegedly ran of South African, Chinese and Vietnamese nationals, including a game ranger and a former policeman. The gang are now on trial for multiple charges.
Its fate was sealed by the work of a South Africa's dedicated rhino DNA testing laboratory that is unique in the world for its efforts to protect what is fast becoming one of its most threatened species.
The University of Pretoria's Veterinary Genetics Laboratory processes forensic samples taken from virtually every wildlife crime scene in the country. Bloodied axes and machetes, trainers and clothes are all studied along with rhino, skin, bone and horn in a bid to link poaching suspects to their kills.
Also based at the laboratory is the Rhino DNA Index System (Rhodis), which aims to catalogue the genetic profiles of every living rhino – there are currently 25,000 spread out among South African, Kenya, Namibia, Malawi and Zimbabwe.
It means that if a Rhodis-logged rhino is killed, those responsible for the death and those who profit from it can be linked back to the carcass and more easily prosecuted for their involvement. Those behind the project say that if rolled out internationally and supported by governments in Asia where most poaching products end up, it could have some spectacular results.
It is among topics to be raised at next week's London Conference on Illegal Wildlife Trade, an event hosted by the Prime Minister, David Cameron and the Prince Wales and Duke of Cambridge, to which 50 heads of state have been invited. With concern growing about a number of species eventually being wiped out by poaching, and talk of its profits now being ploughed into terrorism along with other criminal enterprise, the conference reflects a growing determination by politicians around the world to end the trade.
Dr Cindy Harper, director of the Rhodis lab, said that their scientific approach has already brought about a number of successful prosecutions of poachers and wildlife traders in South Africa. If it were rolled out internationally, she believes it could be "one of the most powerful tools" in curbing the poaching syndicates who have sent the number of rhino deaths soaring in recent years because of the belief in Asia in its medicinal properties.
In South Africa, home to the world's largest population, a total of 1,004 were poached in 2013, compared to 668 in 2012 and 448 in 2011.
The country is now on a war-footing and has deployed its military in Kruger to try and stop the army of poachers crossing the porous border with Mozambique.
Dr Harper believes the best solution is taking on the generals, rather than their foot soldiers.
"There will always be criminals on the ground prepared to go out and poach when the amounts of money they're being offered are so large, and those fighting against it do not have same resources as those perpetrating it," she said.
"The internationalisation of (DNA testing) is the most important thing you can do because that's the way you get rid of the high-level syndicates."
Rod Potter, one of the wildlife investigators who races to the scene of each rhino poaching, will speak in London about the importance of science in the fight against wildlife crime.
He regularly sees evidence of the same syndicates at work from the modus operandi of their rhino kills. Some animals will be chased by helicopter, others on foot; some will be killed with machetes, others with high-powered rifles; some will have their horns removed surgically with knives, others will have them hacked out of their face with an axe. One particular gang severs the rhino's Achilles' tendon to stop it from escaping.
At present, just 10 wildlife investigators cover the whole of South Africa but Dr Potter believes more could easily be trained up to reduce any delays in getting to the scene and preserve the best evidence possible.
"A wildlife crime scene may be out in the bush but the techniques are the same that you would use in an urban setting," he said.
"You must pick up patterns, detect syndicates and gather the evidence needed to break them.
"Science provides the links, and puts the person back at the crime scene in the bush, which is crucial because when an animal is poached, there are very seldom witnesses."
When The Telegraph visited the Rhodis laboratory earlier this week, they had just taken delivery of a fresh batch of samples taken from poached rhinos in the Kruger National Park. Each individual bag containing bone, toenail, tissue and blood, represented one rhino – as many as 25 were stacked in one evidence tray.
But despite signing agreements with several countries to share what they found, so that seized horns could be matched up with animals on the Rhodis database, many – including those from countries with the highest demand, like Vietnam – have never been back in touch.
Dr Harper hopes that their cooperation will be pushed for at next week's London conference.
"This is fairly straightforward science that can be harnessed on a large scale," she said. "But it's up to the politicians to take powerful tools like this and do something worthwhile with them." Video.