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  • Julia de Beer


Have you ever wondered about the regular pattern of the perfectly shaped notches in rhino ears?

The war on Africa’s rhino has been well-documented the world over and with no sign of it abating, anti-poaching and rhino monitoring measures are continuously being updated and reviewed on the various reserves and national parks where rhinos roam.

To track and monitor rhino populations, a micro-chipping and ear-notching programme has been implemented with each reserve using a specific notch pattern as a means of identifying an individual animal. A small triangle of skin is removed from the rhino’s ears, with a corresponding numerical value being assigned to a particular notch pattern. All reserves have their own notch map, which has proved to be a particularly useful tool in monitoring the movement of rhino populations in an open system, such as the Thornybush Nature Reserve.

The rangers and field guides learn to recognize the notch patterns and can tell at a glance the numerical name that has been assigned to a particular rhino, and with deeper research can also confirm if the rhino is a local or has come in from a neighbouring reserve.

In addition to ear-notching, a DNA database has been established by the Veterinary Genetics Laboratory of the University of Pretoria to create a DNA register to profile every South African rhino.

Microchips are implanted in different areas on the rhino and DNA samples are collected when rhinos are immobilized for any reason (such as dehorning or ear-notching) or when rhinos are trans-located. DNA samples are also collected at all necropsies that are performed on poached rhinos as well as the carcasses of those that have died from natural causes.

The DNA database, micro-chipping and ear-notching scheme has proved to be a valuable reference, in not only monitoring the movement of rhino on a national basis, but also for the sentencing of criminals who have been found in possession of illegal rhino horn. DNA samples are taken from seized horns and can be genetically matched on the database to establish the territory, age, and sex of the poached rhino.

So, next time you are out on a game drive and come across a rhino, take a closer look at its ears that show the visible reference of its numerical name and recognized territory. You obviously will not see the microchips but may take some comfort in knowing that his life is being covertly monitored, by way of the national rhino DNA database, all for his own safety!

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