Photo Cred: African Parks

South African researchers are using nuclear technology to make rhino horns poisonous to humans, aiming to deter poachers and protect endangered wildlife.


South Africa (27 June 2024) – South Africa’s rhinos have long been victims of a tragic poaching crisis, with these majestic creatures hunted for their valuable horns. Despite global efforts, the illegal trade has persisted, leaving the world desperate for a solution.

Now, South African researchers may have found an answer that has been hiding in plain sight: making rhino horns poisonous to humans.

In a groundbreaking study, scientists at South Africa’s University of the Witwatersrand have successfully inserted low doses of radioisotopes into the horns of 20 live rhinoceros. This six-month study, led by James Larkin from the university’s Radiation and Health Physics Unit, aims to utilise nuclear technology to combat poaching.

The initiative, known as the Rhisotope Project, involves inserting small, measured quantities of radioisotopes into rhino horns. These radioisotopes can be detected by radiation monitors at international borders, harbours, airports, and land crossings but most importantly, they will also make the rhino horn incredibly poisonous to humans.

“The radioactive material would render the horn useless, essentially poisonous for human consumption,” explained Nithaya Chetty, professor and dean of science at the same university. Notably, the dose of radioactive material is so low that it does not impact the animal’s health or the environment in any way.

According to Larkin, the method causes no harm to the animals while tackling rhino poaching.

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

The potential impact of this project is vast. If successful, it could be expanded to protect elephants, pangolins, and other endangered fauna and flora. Over 11,000 radiation detection portal monitors will be installed at airports, harbours, and entry points worldwide, bolstering the detection and prevention of smuggled animal parts.

“Every 20 hours in South Africa, a rhino dies for its horn. These poached horns are then trafficked across the world and used for traditional medicines or as status symbols. This has led to their horns currently being the most valuable false commodity in the black-market trade,” Larkin said. “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.”

The urgency of this project is evident in the recent statistics: despite government efforts, 499 rhinos were killed in 2023, an 11% increase over the previous year.

With initiatives like these, we are protecting wildlife and taking a stand against the illegal trade that threatens our planet’s biodiversity. This pioneering approach could be the key to turning the tide against poaching, offering a new era of conservation where technology and nature work hand in hand for a brighter, safer future.

Watch the News24 special report video below:

Sources: Futurism | World Nuclear Association | News24 
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