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Radioactive material inserted into Rhino horns in anti-poaching project


Radioactive material inserted into Rhino horns in anti-poaching project

A sedated rhinoceros lies unconscious as professor James Larkin from the University of the Witwatersrand carefully implants dosed and calculated radioisotopes into it’s horns in Mokopane on June 25, 2024. (Emmanuel Croset/AFP via Getty Images)

(LONDON) — Scientists in South Africa on Tuesday inserted radioisotopes into the horns of live rhinoceroses in a groundbreaking anti-poaching project.

Twenty rhinos at The Rhino Orphanage in Mokopane, Limpopo District, South Africa, had the radioscopes inserted into their horns, in what is the first the first such project of its kind. The material would be picked up by radiation-detection monitors at international borders.

“Every 20 hours in South Africa a rhino dies for its horn,” said James Larkin, professor and leader at the University of Witwatersrand’s Rhisotope Project.

“This has led to their horns currently being the most valuable false commodity in the black-market trade, with a higher value even than gold, platinum, diamonds and cocaine,” he added.

South Africa is home to the world’s largest rhino population, with approximately 80% and 33% of the world’s 16,800 white and 6,500 black rhinos respectively, according to figures from the International Rhino Foundation.

“Ultimately, the aim is to try to devalue rhinoceros horn in the eyes of the end users, while at the same time making the horns easier to detect as they are being smuggled across borders,” said Larkin.

Scientists from the University of Witwatersrand’s Radiation and Health Physics Unit (RHPU) say the 20 Rhinos were sedated and a small hole was drilled into each of their horns to insert the non-toxic radioisotopes.

“Each insertion was closely monitored by expert veterinarians and extreme care was taken to prevent any harm to the animals,” said Larkin. “Over months of research and testing we have also ensured that the inserted radioisotopes hold no health or any other risk for the animals or those who care for them.”

The project has been three years in the making, the insertion being the “final phase” of the research project.

“This is an example of how cross-disciplinary research and innovation makes a real difference,” said professor Lynn Morris, the deputy vice-chancellor for research and innovation at Wits University. “This novel approach pioneered by Prof Larkin and his colleagues has the potential to eradicate the threat of extinction our unique wild-life species, especially in South Africa and on the continent.”

Poaching has been on the rise in South Africa. South Africa’s Department of Environmental Affairs announced earlier this year 499 rhinos were poached across the nation in 2023 — an increase of 51 in comparison to the previous year.

A team of experts are now set to monitor the health and vitals of the Rhinos over the next six months to determine the viability of this novel approach.

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