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Johannesburg scientists fight back against poachers with radioactive chips

Researchers in Johannesburg turn rhino horns radioactive in a groundbreaking bid to thwart poachers and dismantle illegal wildlife trade networks.

SCIENTISTS at South Africa’s University of the Witwatersrand are implanting radioactive chips into rhino horns in what promises to disrupt the poaching trade.

Embedding tiny, harmless radioactive isotopes into rhino horns of living rhinoceross would enable precise tracking and monitoring, making it nearly impossible for smugglers to move the horns undetected.

The Rhisotope Project, founded in 2021 by Professor James Larkin, began with the injection of chips into the first of 20 rhinos last month. It has already shown significant promise and comes at a critical time, as rhino populations continue to dwindle due to relentless poaching driven by the high demand for rhino horn in certain markets.

Researchers are, however, optimistic that this novel method will provide a much-needed solution to the crisis.

These chips need a simple boost every five years and do not harm the rhinos, making them a sustainable and long-term solution.

With rhino poaching driven by high demand in Asian markets, particularly in Vietnam and China, introducing radioactive chips could be a significant deterrent.

“Ultimately, the aim is to try to devalue rhinoceros horn in the eyes of the end users, while at the same time making the horns easier to detect as they are being smuggled across borders,” Professor Larkin shared in a statement with the University of the Witwatersrand in June.

In 2023, South Africa saw 499 rhinos killed, an 11% increase from the previous year, highlighting the urgent need for effective anti-poaching measures, according to AFP.

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Expanding the use of radioactive chips could be particularly impactful in countries like Kenya and Tanzania, which also struggle with high poaching rates.

These nations are home to large populations of elephants, a species whose ivory is highly sought after in illegal markets.

By implanting radioactive chips into elephant tusks, conservationists hope to replicate the success seen with rhinos, creating a formidable obstacle for poachers.

Elephants, due to their size, would probably require bespoke chips, carefully designed to ensure they do not affect the animals’ behaviour or well-being.

The adaptability of this technology, ergo, makes it a versatile tool in the fight against poaching –– part of a broader strategy to enhance wildlife protection measures.

Traditional methods, such as stricter enforcement of poaching laws and increased patrols in wildlife reserves, have not been sufficient to curb the rise in poaching incidents.

The high-tech approach of using radioactive chips offers a new dimension to these efforts, providing a means to track and trace illegal wildlife products with unprecedented accuracy.

International conservation organisations and governments would closely monitor the progress of this initiative.

Beyond Africa, this technology could also be applied to protect wildlife in Asia and South America, where poaching and illegal trade pose significant threats to biodiversity.

Tigers, for example, are heavily targeted for their bones and skins in several Asian countries. Adapting the radioactive chip technology for use in tigers could create similar deterrents and tracking capabilities, significantly reducing the profitability of illegal poaching operations.

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