Scientists Are Injecting Radioactive Material Into Rhino Horns on Live Animals to Prevent Us From Eating Them

Desperate times call for desperate measures. However, until now, no one thought that protocols for detecting nuclear weapons would be useful in fighting poaching.

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Here’s something you probably didn’t know. To protect us from human nature, many major airports and ports, including those in South Africa, have the necessary infrastructure to detect radioactive material. What for? To detect nuclear weapons. In theory, this prevents weapons smuggling. But in an unexpected turn of events, this infrastructure is now being used to address the issue of poaching.

Radioactive horns. As surprising as it sounds, scientists at the University of the Witwatersrand’s Radiation and Health Physics Unit (RHPU) in Johannesburg, South Africa, have recently initiated the Rhisotope Project, where scientists inject the horns of live rhinos with a small amount of radioactive material. The purpose is to make them easier to detect at border posts.

Why horns? No one should be surprised this initiative is taking place in South Africa, which is home to the majority of the world’s rhinos and, as such, is a major target for poachers. The demand for rhino horns is particularly high in Asia, where they've used in traditional medicine because of their supposed (and unproven) therapeutic effect.

James Larkin, a professor who is leading the project, points out that “every 20 hours in South Africa a rhino dies for its horn.” In fact, the RHPU’s initiative follows an earlier attempt to save rhinos through investment in bonds.

Moreover, the researchers have found that the illegal trade of rhino horns has made them “the most valuable fake commodity in the black-market trade, with a higher value [than] gold, platinum, diamonds and cocaine. Sadly, rhino horns play a larger role in funding a wide variety of criminal activities globally.”

The process of injecting radioactive material. The team of researchers is currently drilling low doses of radioisotopes into the horns of 20 sedated rhinos. For the next six months, they will monitor their health. The process includes implanting two small radioactive chips in the horn area and spraying 11,000 microdots around the same area.

If successful, the project may be expanded to include elephants, pangolins, and other plants and animals, according to Wits University. The radioactive material is expected to last five years in the horn, which, in Larkin's view, is more cost-effective than removing the horn every 18 months.

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


Poison to humans. In short, once the dose of radioactivity dose is injected, any product made from the horns will be “essentially poisonous for human consumption,” the South African researchers say. In any case, the primary objective is to detect smuggling attempts before the horns leave the country, if possible.

How the alarm is raised. Apparently, the infrastructure found at airports works quite simply. Anyone attempting to pass through with radioactive horns would set off alarms, triggering a police response. Scientists also note that the process isn’t harmful to animals because the dose of radioactive material is so low that it doesn’t affect animal health or the environment in any way.

Some contextual data. In a report in February, the country’s Department of Environmental Affairs stated that despite government efforts to combat the illegal trade, 499 of these large mammals died in 2023, mainly in state parks. This marks an 11% increase compared to 2022.

To illustrate the grim reality, we’re talking about figures of up to $60,000 per kilogram (more than $27,000 per pound), which explains why the rhino horn remains one of the most lucrative illegal markets.

Image | Witts University | Martin Pettitt

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