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South Africa: Will radioactive chips stop wildlife poaching?

June 26, 2024

Researchers in Johannesburg hope radioactive chips injected into rhino horns will help put a halt to poaching and the trade in endangered wildlife.

An adult Rhino with a baby rhino
Rhino horn is considered therapeutic in some Asian countriesImage: Niels Christian Vilmann/Ritzau Scanpix/picture alliance

Scientists injected two radioactive chips into a live rhino's horns at a South African rhino orphanage June 25, 2024.

The rhino was the first of 20 slated to receive the injection in an effort to stop poaching, which a conservationist at the rhino orphanage called "the best idea I've ever heard."

How the anti-poaching chips work

The chips will do two things: Scientists leading the project told the AFP news agency the chips will set off radiation detectors at border control points, alerting authorities of potentially poached material; they will also render the injected horns poisonous for human consumption, depleting their value on illegal markets, where rhino horns are as valuable as gold.

The pilot initiative, called the Rhisotope Project, is led by researchers in the radiation and health physics unit at South Africa's University of the Witwatersrand.

They told AFP that although the radioactive dose is strong enough to set off alarms, it isn't enough to cause damage to the animals themselves or the surrounding environment.

The injection, which will need to be boosted every five years, does not cause the rhino pain, they said.

Wildlife academy in South Africa helps fight poaching

Poaching problem

Efforts to halt poaching have been ongoing for decades. Conservationists have tried a number of initiatives, such as global trade rules against extinction, but the animals are still being killed.

In 2023, 499 rhinos were killed in South Africa, according to AFP. That's up by 11% on 2022 .

The researchers said they will follow up with the rhinos over the course of the coming years to ensure they are protected and are not experiencing any adverse effects caused by the radioactive chips.

Rhino horn is highly valued in Asia, particularly in Vietnam and China. The material, which is considered therapeutic, is used in traditional medicine.

In South Africa, home to 80% of the world's rhinos, horns have been poached in national and provincial parks and private reserves.

cr/za (AFP)