Make their horns radioactive – Unleashing the Apocalypse

South Africa hosts the world’s largest rhino population, home to about 80 per cent of the world’s 16,800 white rhinos and 33 per cent of the 6,500 black rhinos. With poaching posing a severe threat to these populations, innovative solutions are critical
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South African scientists have come up with a rather unusually plan to combat rhino poaching. Called the Rhisotope project, scientists have been injecting radioactive material into live rhino horns.

This novel approach aims to make the horns easier to detect at border checkpoints and render them useless for human consumption, thereby deterring poachers.

Led by James Larkin, director of the University of the Witwatersrand’s Radiation and Health Physics Unit, the project involves inserting two small radioactive chips into the horns of 20 rhinos. These low-dose radioactive materials are designed to be detectable by radiation sensors at international borders without posing harm to the animals or the environment.

South Africa hosts the world’s largest rhino population, home to about 80 per cent of the world’s 16,800 white rhinos and 33 per cent of the 6,500 black rhinos, according to the International Rhino Foundation. With poaching posing a severe threat to these populations, innovative solutions are critical.

Arrie Van Deventer, founder of the Limpopo rhino orphanage where the procedure was conducted, expressed optimism about this new method, believing it could be the key to stopping poaching. He noted that previous methods like dehorning and poisoning have not been successful.

James Larkin emphasized the dual goals of the project: devaluing rhino horns in the eyes of end-users and making the horns easier to detect as they are smuggled across borders. He explained that the 20 rhinos were sedated, and small holes were drilled into their horns to insert the non-toxic radioisotopes. Each insertion was closely monitored by expert veterinarians to ensure the animals’ safety, and extensive research has shown that the inserted radioisotopes pose no health risks to the rhinos or their caretakers.

The project, three years in the making, has reached its “final phase” with the insertion of the radioisotopes. Lynn Morris, deputy vice-chancellor for research and innovation at Wits University, praised the initiative, highlighting its potential to make a significant difference in protecting wildlife from extinction, particularly in South Africa and across the continent.

The radioactive material is expected to last for five years on the horn, making it a more cost-effective solution compared to dehorning, which needs to be done every 18 months.

Furthermore, the team sprayed 11,000 microdots on each horn to help more with identification. As the project progresses, scientists will monitor the rhinos’ health and collect blood samples to ensure the animals remain effectively protected.

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