• DNA profiling for parentage analysis and animal forensics.

  • Testing for genetic defects, e.g. Malignant hyperthermia, DUMPS, BLAD, Chondrodysplasia, etc.

  • Testing for advantageous genetic characteristics e.g. casein complex in dairy cattle.

  • Cytogenetics.

  • Analysis of the genetic structure and diversity of livestock and game.

  • Identification of genes underlying economic traits in livestock.

​DNA Forensics is the key to resolving stock theft in South Africa

Stock theft and poaching are a major challenge to livestock and game production in South Africa. This has an impact on the economy, affecting all sectors of the farming community, from the large commercial organizations to the stud breeders and extending to the rural farmers who may own one or two animals. Economic losses, due to stock theft, are estimated to be R750 million per annum. Figure 1 shows the estimated stock theft costs in South Africa. As a result, the South African government through the South African Police Services (SAPS) has identified stock theft as one of the priority areas. A partnership has been established between SAPS and the Animal Genetics Laboratory of the ARC-Animal Production Institute to address the challenge of stock theft through DNA technology. The agreement between the two organizations was established in 1996. According to SAPS, approximately 45 000 cases of stock theft are reported for court purposes annually, and only about 8 000 cases go to court. More than 500 of the court cases, involving more than 3 000 exhibits, use evidence obtained from DNA analysis. About 95% of these cases are resolved and suspects are prosecuted.

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Figure 1: Stock theft is estimated to cause losses of R750 million annually in South Africa (R250M recovered)

 

DNA technology is being used as an important forensic tool to resolve stock theft in the country and is increasingly becoming vital in ensuring accuracy and fairness in the criminal justice system. DNA-based methods have the potential to provide the necessary evidence to establish individual identification, ownership, parentage verification, traceability or the origin of the species.  Except for identical twins or clones, no two animals are genetically the same. This means that the DNA of an animal provides a fingerprint or unique identification of animal. Only a small trace of DNA is needed to read the fingerprint of an animal. An important question is "how would this mambo-jumbo about DNA assist in resolving stock theft?" It is simple; hair samples (source of DNA) are collected from individual animals and stored in the laboratory. In the event that an animal is stolen and a trace of DNA is retrieved from the crime scene (where an animal was slaughtered) or from a meat sample of a stolen animal in possession of a suspect, the DNA is sent to the laboratory and DNA fingerprinted. If the DNA fingerprint of the sample stored in the laboratory prior to the theft and that from the crime scene are identical, then the suspect is linked to the crime and put behind bars hopefully for good. Even if there is no stored hair sample, conviction can be secured by linking DNA from blood, blood stains, meat or other tissue found on the crime scene with blood on suspect's clothes, tools, meat found in suspect's possession etc. It is that simple, what a nifty technology.

The state-of-the-art Animal Genetics Laboratory of the ARC-Animal Production Institute located in Irene, Pretoria and the team of scientists and technicians are the reason for the good turnaround time for processing and reporting of the results to SAPS. The Animal Genetics Laboratory is a member of the International Society of Animal Genetics (ISAG) and uses microsatellite marker panels recommended by ISAG for animal forensics. The success of the DNA forensic service in combating stock theft relies heavily on the chain of custody of forensic samples i.e. the entire process of collecting samples from crime scene to laboratory is shown in Figure 2. To ensure adherence to chain of custody, the ARC provides continuous training to SAPS personnel several times per annum. The training focuses on DNA sample collection, storage, and dispatch to the laboratory. The benefit of the training is demonstrated by the quality of DNA exhibits that are brought to the laboratory by SAPS.  

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Figure 2: The chain of custody of forensic samples: the process of

collecting samples from crime scene to laboratory has to be documented thoroughly

 

Stock theft has broader implications than the loss of animals; the issue also affects food security. Through the use of DNA markers technology the ARC managed to resolve the identification of lost or slaughtered animals, paternity in livestock ownership dispute cases and uncertainties in animal origins of meat products. Although some of the cases remain unsolved, those that are reported and investigated have led to an increase in the prosecution rate of stock thieves.

For more information contact:

  • Hans van Zyl, Senior Researcher: Molecular Genetics, Tel: +27 (0)12 672 9217,  Email: HvZ@arc.agric.za

  • Pranisha Soma,  Researcher: Molecular Genetics,  Tel: +27 (0)12 672 9218,  Email: Pranisha@arc.agric.za