South African scientists make rhino horns radioactive to prevent poaching

South African scientists make rhino horns radioactive to prevent poaching

James Larkin (left) of the University of the Witwatersrand lies unconscious as he, along with other Rhizotope Project members, implants radioisotopes into its horns at the Waterbury UNESCO Biosphere in Mokopane, June 25, 2024.

James Larkin (left) of the University of the Witwatersrand with other Rhizotope Project members at the Waterbury UNESCO Biosphere in Mokopane, implanting radioisotopes into the horns of sedated rhinoceroses, June 25, 2024. | Photo credit: AFP

South African scientists on Tuesday injected radioactive material into the horns of live rhinos to make them easier to detect at border checkpoints, a project aimed at curbing poaching.

The country is home to most of the world's rhinoceroses and is therefore a hub for poaching due to demand from Asia, where the horns are used in traditional medicine for their supposed curative effects.

At the Limpopo Rhino Orphanage in the Waterberg region in the country's north-east, a few thick-skinned herbivores grazed in the low-lying savannah.

James Larkin, director of the Radiation and Health Physics Unit at the University of the Witwatersrand, who led the initiative, said they had implanted “two small radioactive chips in the horn” while applying radioisotopes to one of the large animal’s horns.

Nithya Chetty, professor and dean of science at the same university, said the radioactive material “would render the horn useless … essentially toxic for human consumption.”

Mr Larkin said the dusty rhino would feel no pain if it was put to sleep and laid on the ground. He said the amount of radioactive material was so small that it would not have any effect on the animal's health or the environment.

In February, the environment ministry said that despite government efforts to combat illegal trade, 499 large mammals were killed in 2023, most of them in state-run parks, up 11% from 2022 figures.

Mr Larkin said a total of twenty surviving rhinos are part of the pilot 'Rhizotope' project, under which they will be given a dose so powerful that they can “trigger detectors installed around the world” at international border checkpoints, the basic aim of which is to “prevent nuclear terrorism”.

Rhino horns are in high demand on the black market, where they are worth as much by weight as gold and cocaine.

According to orphanage founder Arie van Deventer, dehorning and poisoning the rhinos has not deterred poachers.

“This is probably the thing that will stop poaching,” the conservationist said. “It's the best idea I've ever heard.”

Wildebeests, warthogs and giraffes wandered the vast conservation area while more than a dozen team members performed the delicate procedure on another rhino.

Mr. Larkin drilled a tiny hole in the horn, injected the radioisotope, and finished the job by sprinkling 11,000 microdots onto the horn.

According to estimates by the international foundation, around 15,000 rhinos live in the southern African country.

Jessica Babich, the project's chief operating officer, said the final step in the project will be to care for the animal while following “proper scientific protocols and ethical protocols.”

The team will then take blood samples to ensure the rhino is safe. Mr Larkin said the material would last on the horn for up to five years, making it less costly than removing the horn every 18 months.

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