Radioactive pellets are newest weapon in battle to save rhinos

A rhino named Beckham after the former England footballer is one of the animals who have had the pellets injected into their horns
A rhino named Beckham after the former England footballer is one of the animals who have had the pellets injected into their horns - Cebisile Mbonani/Bloomberg

Radioactive pellets have been implanted into the horns of rhinoceroses in South Africa as part of a hi-tech battle against rampant poaching.

The Rhisotope Project, designed by a team of scientists at the University of Witwatersrand, has injected radioisotopes into the horns of 20 animals at The Rhino Orphanage in the country’s Waterberg region.

The team believe the radiation will devalue the horns and also make it easier to catch and prosecute poachers running industrial-scale smuggling operations across the world.

“The main goal is to make the horns unattractive, because then you reduce the demand,” said Prof James Larkin, the leader of the project.

The Rhisotope team say that inserting the pellets is far more cost-effective than dehorning the animals.

The pellet insertion costs around £1,115 and lasts five years, while dehorning, at £780 per operation, is required every 18 months.

“Dehorning is a stressful procedure that requires heavier sedation,” said Prof Larkin. “We are using a complex drug system that uses about half the quantities used in dehorning.”

The rhino is put to sleep for the injections, so it does not feel any pain. The process also drastically reduces the time that the animals are under anaesthetic, cutting it from around 40 to 10 minutes.

“I’m not saying this is the panacea,” said Prof Larkin. “But if we can offer an alternative tool to put in the toolbox … I think we’re making a significant contribution to the protection of rhinos.”

Some conservationists, however, are sceptical about technology-led anti-poaching schemes.

“All these initiatives, they never work,” said Andy Martin, chief executive of Conservation Rangers Operations Worldwide (CROW). “I’ve seen them try many times. Money is wasted this way.”

A plan which involved microchipping every rhinoceros horn in Kenya in 2013 actually had the effect of making the rhinos a target for poachers, and the project was quietly phased out, Mr Martin said.

A better investment would be training more rangers to protect the parks throughout Africa, he added. “No conservation project can be successful without involving the communities, starting from local rangers.”

No ‘silver bullet’ for poaching crisis

Nina Fascione, executive director of the International Rhino Foundation, said there is “no silver bullet that will solve the rhino poaching crisis”.

“It takes a combination of tools and methods at every level to protect these imperilled animals,” she said. “Techniques such as this may remind poachers that … poaching doesn’t pay.”

The Rhisotope Project has employed people from local communities on game parks – large swathes of land where wild animals are hunted for sport – to act as its ambassadors and spread the word when rhinos are treated with radiation.

“The local population are the front line in the defence of these animals,” said Prof Larkin. “Rangers are dedicated individuals who are doing a dangerous job, but if we can protect them by making the horns slightly radioactive, I reckon we are doing a good job.”

If the concept is proven to be a success following a six-month monitoring period, Rhisotope will make the project widely available to those who want to treat their animals around the world.

South Africa is home to the largest global population of rhinos – accounting for around half of the total black rhino population in Africa, and the greatest global number of white rhinos. More than 15,000 rhinos are estimated to live in the sprawling country.

Experts have warned that illicit poaching and the smuggling of the rhino horns abroad pose an existential threat to the species.

There have been more than 10,000 rhinos killed illegally in South Africa since 2008.