Scientists implant radioactive material in rhino horns to curb poaching in South Africa

The mammals get killed because of a superstition.

South African scientists have starting an experiment aiming to protect the decreasing population of rhinos – they inject radioactive material into live animals’ horns in a bid to make them useless to poachers.

While the project is designed to stop the killings, it also helps the authorities to track down the movement of horns across borders.

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South Africa, home to the majority of the world's rhinos, faces significant poaching pressures driven by demand in Asia, where rhino horns are coveted for their purported medicinal properties – which are not supported scientifically and are based on superstitions alone.

The scientists have “immunized” this way at least 20 mammals at the Limpopo Rhino Orphanage in the Waterberg region of northeastern South Africa, according to an AFP report.

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"We implanted two tiny radioactive chips into the horn," says James Larkin, the director of the University of the Witwatersrand's Radiation and Health Physics Unit. His colleagues then drilled a small hole into the horn to insert the radioisotope and sprayed 11,000 microdots across the horn.

None poses a health threat to the rhinos or the environment. The dose of radioactive material was minimal but enough to scare off poachers.

The measure was decided as a result of failing government efforts to curb poaching in the country. In 2023 alone, as many as 499 rhinos were killed - an 11% increase from 2022, with most of these incidents happening in state-run parks.

The Rhisotope project provides for radioactive detectors that were originally used at sea ports and airports to prevent nuclear terrorism.

Rhino horns are highly valued on the black market, often fetching prices comparable to gold and cocaine.

The International Rhino Foundation estimates that approximately 15,000 rhinos live in southern regions of Africa.

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