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South African Researchers Trial Nuclear Technology to Combat Rhino Poaching

South African researchers put radioactive material into the horns of 20 rhinos to deter poaching. The idea is to use existing radiation detectors on national borders to locate and apprehend poachers and traffickers. The study initiative intends to broaden its applicability to help other vulnerable species, such as elephants and pangolin.

Professor James Larkin performs a procedure where isotopes are placed into a rhino
Credit: AP Photo/Denis Farrell

By putting radioactive material into the horns of 20 rhinos, researchers hope to identify and catch poachers and traffickers using existing radiation detectors at national borders.

The procedure entails tranquillizing the animals before delicately drilling a hole into their horns and introducing radioactive material. The programme was spearheaded by the University of the Witwatersrand's Radiation and Health Physics Unit in South Africa, which collaborated with veterinarians and nuclear scientists. The goal is that this technology may be used to protect other vulnerable species like elephants and pangolins from poaching.

Professor James Larkin, the project lead, explained the rationale behind the approach, stating, "We are doing this because it makes it significantly easier to intercept these horns as they are being trafficked over international borders, because there is a global network of radiation monitors that have been designed to prevent nuclear terrorism. And we're piggybacking on the back of that."

A sedated rhino is prepared to be tranquilized
Credit: AP Photo/Denis Farrell

The catastrophic loss in rhino population necessitates urgent action to combat poaching. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, there were roughly 500,000 rhinos at the start of the twentieth century. Today, that figure has dropped to a meagre 27,000 due to the ongoing demand for rhino horns on the illegal market.

South Africa, which has the world's largest rhino population (estimated at 16,000), has become a centre for poaching. Every year, more than 500 rhinoceros are killed in the country. While the COVID-19 outbreak originally reduced poaching numbers, the relaxing of lockdown restrictions has resulted in a comeback in criminal activity. Professor Larkin stressed the need for creative approaches, saying, "We've got to do something new and something different to reduce poaching. You know, you'll see the figures they've already started going up. During Covid, they all went down, but post-Covid we are now starting to see those numbers go up again."

Professor James Larkin drills a hole into a rhinos horn
Credit: AP Photo/Denis Farrell

However, the researchers have encountered ethical issues and scepticism from detractors about their technique. Pelham Jones, chairperson of the Private Rhino Owners Association, questioned the effectiveness of this strategy, noting that poachers frequently avoid established border crossings to escape interception. He stated. "They bypass the border crossings because they know that is the area of the highest risk of confiscation or interception."

Concerns regarding the potential impact on the animals were addressed by Professor Nithaya Chetty, dean of the science faculty at Witwatersrand, who stated that the radioactive dosage employed is modest and well evaluated for any harmful effects on rhinos.

  • South African researchers have injected radioactive material into the horns of 20 rhinos to combat poaching.

  • The goal is to utilise existing radiation detectors at national borders to identify and apprehend poachers and traffickers.

  • The research project aims to expand its application to protect other vulnerable species, such as elephants and pangolins.

Source: AP NEWS

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