Innovative Nuclear Technologies Can Save South Africa’s Rhino Population




Despite tremendous efforts to combat illegal rhino hunting in South Africa, poaching has not been eradicated yet. Rhino horn remains among the most valuable items on the global black market, so over 9600 rhinos were killed in poaching attacks from 2010 to 2019. A previously unexpected solution could be provided via the use of nuclear isotopes to track rhino horns that have been taken. Now scientists from several countries are launching a project aiming at the effective protection of the wild population of rhinos.

Unique collaboration

The Rhisotope Project is an initiative between WITS University (South Africa), Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) and Colorado State University (USA) together with global scientists, researchers, South African rhino owners and the one of the country’s best rhino veterinary surgeons Dr. William Fowlds. This has all been made possible by the support of Rosatom.

In recent decades the Russian state corporation has devoted a lot of efforts to the non-energy use of nuclear technologies, and the rhino project could demonstrate their previously unknown potential. In the South African collaboration Rosatom is expected to act as a principal sponsor of the project, providing science expertise and radioisotopes supply.

The Rhinos extinction is not surprising if you consider rhino horn is sold for $50 000 a kg (an average horn weighs about 3kg) on the black market. Traditional anti-poaching methods are still not enough, and even though trade in rhino horn is illegal and banned internationally, there are many countries that drive the illicit sale of horn. Trafficked rhino horn has become another lucrative “commodity” for the biggest crime syndicates to benefit from.

South Africa is a home to 90% of the world’s rhino population, and the same 90% is a rate of correlation between words “rhino” and “poaching” in the Southern African media. At the current rate of loss, wild rhino will be extinct in fewer than eight to ten years.

Nuclear guardian

The new anti-poaching approach is quite simple at first glance. By placing radioactive material in rhino’s horn, The Rhisotope Project participants expect to create an effective demand reduction and rhino protection tool. This will make rhino horn unattractive to the end user, and reduce the value of the horn to the point where poachers are no longer prepared to risk life, limb, and liberty to hunt and kill animals.

It could be a giant leap forward in the protection of this endangered species, insist the scientists engaged into the project. If the appetite for horn lowers so will poaching. The two challenges are not mutually exclusive and are inextricably linked.

Moreover, this method will enable the anti-poaching teams to be more effective, as well as assist international and South African law enforcement agencies track and trace the rhino horn trafficking channels by using current nuclear security capabilities in airports and harbours. Most often horns are transported across borders using various channels which are not subject to obligatory inspection according the international legislation, e.g. in hand luggage. But in a case where a sensor controller in an airport picks up radioactivity, the luggage should be opened and checked by custom officers.

“The Rhisotope Project is an initiative between the top global nuclear company and scientists, researchers, South African rhino owners and wildlife veterinary surgeons to significantly reduce rhino poaching. The purpose of our project is to create a lasting and effective means of significantly lowering the amount of rhino being poached and killed for their horn”, says James Larkin, professor at the University of Witwatersrand.

The Road Map

Since nuclear technology is still associated in public opinion with increased danger, the implementation of the project involves several stages.

The primary phase is necessary to demonstrate that sufficient stable isotopes of carbon (13C) and nitrogen (15N) can be introduced into the horn as the amino acid L-Proline. Use of stable isotopes will help to understand the physiology of the rhino and its horn as well as to ensure that there’s no movement of the material from the horn back into the animal.

This stage will require at least two animals to be darted and sedated, at which point the cocktail of stable isotopes can be introduced into the horn. These animals will be isolated into a separate camp or field where they can be closely observed. The trained rangers will take daily samples which will indicate whether or not there has been movement of material from the horn into the animals. Additionally, venous blood samples will be taken on a fortnightly basis.

The second phase will concentrate on the modelling of radiological doses to any animal that has its horn treated with radioisotopes to ensure that more good than harm comes to the animal. This is to convince the rhino owners that any planned exposures to the animals are justified.

The radiochemical aspect of the research will help identify a suitable radioisotope and its most adequate chemical form which is to be inserted into the horn of rhino. Currently the intention is to carry out this phase of the work in conjunction with Colorado State University as they have made some early steps down the road of modelling.

The next phase is demonstration one. The results of the previous research will be drawn together and the first rhino will have its horn treated with radioisotopes by the end of 2021. Prior to the first real-life treatment an approach will have to be made to the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (SAHPRA), the organization responsible for the licensing of these types of radioactive materials, to ensure that they are happy that this radiological treatment process meets their regulations. On the international front it has already been ascertained that no international treaties would be contravened by this process and in consultation with the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) in the United States, who incidentally have shown some interest in the idea.

Having completed the research work and demonstrated the desirability and practicality of this technique, it will then be offered to the owners of rhino on the African continent and elsewhere globally, and training and assistance will be offered to those conservation organizations who may wish to utilize this process to further protect their animals from poaching.

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