South Africa hopes to scare off rhino poachers with radioactive markers

A rhino that has been dehorned, photo: Reuters
A rhino that has been dehorned, photo: Reuters

Researchers in South Africa want to use radioactive markers on rhino horns to scare off poachers and smugglers. Radioactive material would be inserted in their horns which is detectable at global ports of entry.

They hope that if the horns are marked with radioactive material, they’ll become less attractive for buyers.

“We are doing our homework at the moment, and our whole aim is to find an appropriate quantity of radioactive material which will not harm the animal,” said James Larkin, director at the radiation and health physics unit at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

Rhino poaching involves both local poachers and international criminal gangs who smuggle rhino horns across borders. Poachers shoot rhinos with high-powered hunting rifles before removing the horn from the skull with a knife.

Alternative to de-horning
The researchers need to prove it’s safe to use radioactive material on animals before they can explore the method further.

Using radioactive material in horns would be an alternative for the controversial de-horning where the animals’ horns are cut off to prevent poaching.

Dehorning leaves rhinos with horns too small for poachers to bother with; humans tranquilize a rhino and remove his or her horn with an electric saw.

The method is controversial because it makes male rhinos vulnerable in fights. It takes around three years for a horn to grow back.

Rhino population is declining
South Africa is home to around 16,000 rhinos, the environmental ministry told Reuters in May. But poaching and drought in the North-East region have hit the rhino population hard.

In the Kruger National Park, the number of rhinos has gone down to around 3,800 in 2019 from 11,800 rhinos in 2008, according to a South African National Parks report.

Despite a 30% decline in rhino poaching in 2020 due to coronavirus lockdown and travel restrictions in South Africa, poachers still killed nearly 400 rhinos for their horns.

Demand for rhino horns comes mainly from Asia, where they are believed to have medicinal benefits and are also a symbol of wealth.

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