African Activists Use Radioactivity To Combat Rhino Poaching
To combat the poaching of rhinoceroses, South African animal preservationists are turning to radioactive substances: By injecting a small amount into the animals' horns, they seek to deter and detect smugglers.
If the animals' horns are taken through customs at a port or airport, alarms should sound when the substance is detected - a move activists hope will dramatically reduce smuggling, Ralf E, Kreuger reported for Deutsche Presse-Agentur (dpa).
They are taking an international approach, working with activists and experts from several different countries in what they have dubbed "Project Rhisotope." The first rhinos to take part in the project are Igor and Denver, two bulls on a game farm in the Eastern Cape province.
James Larkin of Johannesburg's Witwatersrand University injected an amino acid containing special, non-radioactive isotopes of carbon and nitrogen into the bulls' horns in mid-2021. The researchers first want to analyze whether and how the amino acid is distributed, and later they plan to use slightly radioactive isotopes that are easy to detect externally with measuring instruments.
"It's a very unusual approach: We're trying to reduce the value of the horn and at the same time make it harder to smuggle," says Larkin, who heads the university's radiation and health medicine department.
He says injecting just a tiny dose of the amino acid - the size of a ballpoint pen tip - into the horn would suffice.
"The dose is small enough not to harm the animal - now we want to test whether the dose remains in the horn," he tells dpa.
Researchers will also monitor the two rhinos to see whether any risks or health problems emerge over the coming months.
"We then intend to present a viable concept by September," Larkin says. If the concept proves viable, it will be offered to both the government and private rhino keepers.