Fight against rhino poaching goes nuclear

The Rhisotope Project launched by the University of Witwatersrand is fighting rhino poaching in South Africa by making rhino horns radioactive.

The project aims to drastically reduce rhino poaching by making it easier to detect smuggled rhino horn as it moves between countries.

“With over 10,000 radiation detection devices installed at various ports of entry across the globe, experts are confident that this project will make the transportation of horn incredibly difficult and will substantially increase the likelihood of identifying and arresting smugglers,” Wits said.

As part of the first phase of the project, two rhinos at the Buffalo Kloof Private Game Reserve in the Eastern Cape had their horns injected with amino acids containing harmless stable radio isotopes.

These isotopes can be picked up by radiation detection equipment.

In the next three months, scientists will monitor these rhinos and analyse various samples to understand how the isotope interacted within the horn and the animal.

Computer and phantom modelling will then be used to confirm and identify the appropriate radioactive isotope and quantity to be used.

International organisations supporting the initiative include Russia’s state atomic energy corporation Rosatom, the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO), Colorado State University (USA), and the Nuclear Energy Corporation of South Africa (Necsa).

Global scientists, researchers, South African rhino owners, and veterinary surgeon Dr William Fowlds (pictured below) are also involved.

Once the research work has been completed and a proof of concept has been demonstrated, the technique will be offered to state and private rhino owners on the African continent and globally.

“The intellectual property as well as training and assistance will be made freely available to conservation organisations who may wish to utilise this process to further protect their animals from poaching,” the researchers stated.

Director at the Radiation and Health Physics Unit at Wits, professor James Larkin, said South Africa was one of the few countries in the world with the Big Five, and therefore had to protect its rhino population.

“We’ve got to work hard to maintain that for the two reasons in the industry: for the people’s employment, for the benefit of everyone who lives and works around the game farm,” Larkin stated.

“You have to realise that you can shoot a rhino once, but if you shoot it with a camera, you can do it a hundred times, a thousand times and people will keep coming back to see these beautiful animals, that’s jobs for a lot of people, that’s growth of the economy.”

CEO of Rosatom Central and Southern Africa Ryan Collyer said the initiative had the potential to save rhinos from certain extinction.

“We believe that science and particularly nuclear science will play a fundamental role in not only protecting the rhino but our planet in general,” Collyer stated.

James Larkin injects amino acid with isotopes into the horn of one of the rhinos.

Despite consisting primarily of keratin – the same component which makes up hair and fingernails – rhino horns are viewed as a valuable commodity in countries like Vietnam, China, Cambodia, Croatia, and North Korea, primarily due to cultural beliefs and pseudoscience.

Rhino horn trade is illegal throughout the world, but this has not stopped powerful syndicates from poaching the animals in Africa and smuggling them to markets of interest.

South Africa currently has 90% of the world’s rhino population, but this number has been dropping drastically over the last decade because of poaching. Between 2010 and 2019, more than 9,600 rhinos were poached.

One major area of concern is the Kruger National Park, which has seen its rhino numbers decline by nearly 70% over the last decade, primarily as a result of poaching.

To address this, SANParks recently said it would implement polygraph testing of its employees working with endangered species – including rhino – to pursue possible action against those who may be assisting criminal syndicates in acquiring the horns.

Below are more images from the launch of the Rhisotope Project at Buffalo Kloof Private Game Reserve.

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Fight against rhino poaching goes nuclear