TechRadioactive rhino horns: South African scientists' bold anti-poaching move

Radioactive rhino horns: South African scientists' bold anti-poaching move

Radioactive rhino horns. A novel idea by scientists to save animals.
Radioactive rhino horns. A novel idea by scientists to save animals.
Images source: © Getty Images | MANOJ SHAH
Anna Wajs-Wiejacka

28 June 2024 12:42

South African scientists reported injecting non-toxic radioactive material into the horns of twenty living rhinos. This is how they aim to combat the severe problem of poaching. The radioactive horns are meant to protect the animals.

Scientists from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, conceived an unusual idea to save local rhinos from poachers. To protect their lives, two non-toxic radioactive isotopes were injected into the animals' horns.

Prof. James Larkin, director of the radiation and health physics unit at the University of the Witwatersrand, mentioned in an interview with AFP that he placed "two tiny little radioactive chips in the horn." The radioactive material "render the horn useless... essentially poisonous for human consumption," added Nithaya Chetty, professor and dean of science at the same university, quoted by the portal

Larkin emphasized that experienced veterinarians precisely monitored every injection and every effort was made to prevent animal harm.

Scientists assured that the rhinos did not feel pain during the procedure. The dose of radioactive material is also small enough that it poses no threat to the animal and is not dangerous to the environment.

Poaching remains a serious problem

In February, the environment ministry reported that despite government efforts to combat illegal trade, 499 giant mammals were killed in 2023, mainly in national parks. This represents an 11 percent increase compared to the data for 2022. Twenty living rhinos will be part of the pilot Rhisotope project, during which they will be given an isotope dose that is "strong enough to set off detectors installed globally."

Scientists remind us that these detectors are installed "to prevent nuclear terrorism" at international border posts. They also point out that border officers have hand-held radiation detectors that can detect contraband, in addition to the thousands of radiation detectors installed at ports and airports.

On the black market, rhino horns fetch staggering prices

Rhino horns are highly sought after on the black market, where the price per weight is comparable to the cost of gold and cocaine. Arrie Van Deventer, an orphanage founder, noted that cutting off the rhino horns has not deterred poachers.

"Maybe this is the thing that will stop poaching.This is the best idea I’ve ever heard" – said a tall, slender conservation activist.

After the process, the team took blood samples from the rhinos to ensure the animals were in good condition. The material placed on the horn is expected to last for 5 years. If the project proves successful, scientists plan to extend it to more individuals.

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