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The Point Of The Radioactive Rhino: Nuclear Tech To the Rescue In South Africa?

Published 10 days ago
By Yeshiel Panchia

Researchers in South Africa are trialing nuclear technology as a solution to help stamp out rhino poaching and the illegal trade of its horn – which can fetch as much as $65,000 a kilo.

To the rescue of the 2,300kg rhinoceros in Africa now is an isotope smaller than its horn, injected into it.

Literally taking the illegal rhino horn industry by its horns, a team of researchers at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) in Johannesburg, South Africa, is working on a potential solution that could help save the endangered species from poaching, the scourge decimating their population in the wild.

The Rhisotope Project that it’s called marries nuclear technology with environmental conservation, aiming to save the rhino population in Africa.

Since the late 2000s, rhino poaching numbers have increased, peaking in 2014 when 1,215 rhinos were killed in South Africa alone, as per the Department of Environmental Affairs. Thankfully, these numbers have been on the decline now, with 594 poached in 2019.

Historically poached for their horns – with an average price of $65,000 per kilo (source: – and used as powdered medicine in East Asia, the trading of rhino horn has become a complex, cross-border criminal enterprise worth billions of dollars.

Public efforts to draw attention to the plight of the rhino – one of Africa’s ‘Big Five’ and which mostly survives in protected areas or sanctuaries – have been successful, with funds raised for anti-poaching initiatives and habitat protection launched over the years yielding favorable results.

Yet, even with an international ban on the trade in rhino horn, a multinational smuggling infrastructure exists and that has meant the poaching of these magnificent animals has not yet been stamped out.

It has called for innovative solutions from science and technology. Rhisotope, for instance, takes aim at both the supply and demand of the illicit rhino horn trade, and is using nuclear technology.

The project was initially birthed as a scribble on a serviette during a casual lunch discussion Wits’ Professor James Larkin had with a few friends. The informal chat around the challenges of fighting rhino poaching led to an epiphany.

“What happens if you put a radioactive isotope in the rhino’s horn?” they asked.

“That was the original question,” reminisces Larkin. The offbeat idea gained momentum when Larkin, an Adjunct Professor at Wits with a background in Nuclear Security and also Director of The Radiation and Health Physics Unit, began to consider what implications this would have on the trade itself.

“The placing of an isotope in a rhino horn has two useful effects. The first is that if people [poachers or trophy- hunters] are aware that these isotopes are placed, they’re going to say ‘thanks, but no thanks’, because there will be a concern that it’s harmful to them. The second effect is that the horn is easily detectable by radiation monitors, which makes them much easier to intercept,” says Larkin in
an interview with FORBES AFRICA.

In the markets of the East, the demand for rhino horns is driven by a belief in its benefits as an aphrodisiac or cure for cancer. This, especially in countries like Vietnam where traditional medicine is still popular. Its medicinal value
is promoted as an expensive palliative care option, often endorsed by the desperate who seek respite from cancer. There are also studies and papers refuting this, saying that according to traditional Chinese medicine, rhino horns were used to treat typhoid fever and convulsions and not cancer.

And then, there are other purported hypotheses driving the demand for the rhino horn – that it’s considered a symbol of wealth, or meant to be given away as expensive gifts.

The Rhisotope Project aims to address all of these aspects of consumption by allowing the rhino with the radioactive marker to be monitored.

“Right now, it’s easy for the charlatans and the snake- oil salespeople to push rhino horn as a cure for cancer or as an aphrodisiac. They have no conscience,” says Larkin. “But now, if you have a horn that’s got a radioactive isotope placed in it, for the end user, that’s it – ‘it’s radioactive, I don’t want to be paying all of this money for something that might harm me’.”

The possibility of the project being able to dip demand for the horn is crucial for future success.

Equally important is limiting the ease with which the horn is smuggled.

Relatively small and portable, the per unit weight of crushed rhino horn is reportedly worth more than diamonds, gold and even cocaine. Indeed, the transit networks that facilitate the smuggling of these horns are sophisticated multinational syndicates, with the illegal wildlife trade estimated to be $20 billion annually.

“You’ve got a whole supply chain from the team of three who are poaching the rhino; the local kingpin who sells them… a middleman who arranges the shipping, the sellers at the end of the line. Each time it changes hands, the value [of the horn] goes up. It’s a multinational trade right up there with guns, people- smuggling and drug-smuggling,” says Larkin.

So the trade and transit routes can’t be overlooked.

After the events of 9/11 in the United States (US), fears of non-state actors procuring nuclear and radioactive materials for so-called ‘dirty bombs’ rose globally.

As part of efforts to prevent this, radiation monitors were reportedly installed at border posts, ports, harbors and airports worldwide, with customs and border-post agents of all countries trained and equipped to use them. The trace amounts of radiation placed in the rhino horns by the Rhisotope Project would be detectable by existing infrastructure, and hence, be able to vastly restrict cross- border smuggling.

After the initial idea, Larkin emailed friends and colleagues in his network, scientists primarily working in nuclear research, and asked them what they thought about it.

“It was like a lightbulb going off,” he says. “You have these people with quite a specific set of skills, working on say the risk of a human being in a power station somewhere, and all of a sudden, they are presented with an interesting problem with meaningful discussion that can make a contribution to an immediate, real-world problem.”

Not long after reaching out, the Colorado State University in the US assigned students to tackle the practicalities of placing the isotope in a wild rhino, the Russian State Atomic Energy Corporation (ROSATOM) was on board to provide seed funding and sponsor the isotopes themselves, as well as there was support from other veterinary and scientific partners such as the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation (NECSA) and Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO).

On May 13 this year, Rhisotope entered its trial phase, with the primary goal of ensuring that the isotopes used are safe for the rhinos themselves. Two rhinos, Denver and Igor, of the Buffalo Kloof Nature Reserve in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa, have had their horns injected with trace elements of harmless isotopes. Over the next three months, they will be monitored rigorously to see how the isotopes interact with their body and horn. After this, life-sized models of both black and white rhino horn heads will be 3D-printed by Wits’ engineering department for further testing.

Once this ‘safety case’ has been completed and proven, the technology will be taken to the relevant regulatory authorities for approval, with the aim of training veterinarians on safely handling and inserting the isotope into rhino horns to increase the speed and scale of the rollout.

The safety of the animals is paramount, and the practicalities
and risk of placing an isotope in a wild rhino horn were not easily overcome. However, Dr William Fowlds, a wildlife veterinarian and passionate conservationist was consulted for his expertise, with all of the darting and procedures performed under his supervision.

“If it works here, we’ll share it with our colleagues in East Africa, Namibia, India, the world really,” says Larkin. There’s no stopping the project’s potential. “The next step is to see if we can extend this technology to protect other species.”

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