Questions being studied by the Rhisotope project for rhino protection

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Demonstrating the use of nuclear technology for wildlife conservation, an international project was launched recently in South Africa that aims to drastically reduce the scourge of rhinoceros poaching by introducing radioisotopes into the horn of rhinos. Adopting a multi-faceted approach to rhino poaching reduction, the aim of the  Rhisotope project, formally launched on May 13, 2021, is to create an effective means to significantly reduce the number of rhinos being poached and killed for their horns. 

The Rhisotope project will investigate introducing harmless quantities of radioactive isotopes into the horn of a rhino with the aim of decreasing the demand for rhino horn in the international market, as well as making it more detectable when crossing country borders. It is an initiative involving South Africa’s Witwatersrand University, Rosatom, the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (Ansto), the Nuclear Energy Corporation of South Africa (Necsa) and Colorado State University in the US, together with global scientists, researchers, rhino owners and the renowned veterinary surgeon and rhino expert William Fowlds. 

According to the Rhisotope project “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, countries like Vietnam, China, Cambodia, Croatia and North Korea to name a few”.  

At a webinar organised last month, Professor James Larkin, Director, Radiation and Health Physics Unit at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, along with Rosatom Central and Southern Africa CEO Ryan Collyer, elaborated on the Rhisotope project, which has four related components of demand reduction and horn devaluation, community upliftment and investment, education, as well as rhino research and data. 

Larkin elaborated on the rationale for inserting a measured quantity radioisotopes into the horn of a rhinoceros as being to reduce the attractiveness of the horn to the end user so that any treated horns that are taken will become that much easier to detect at additional points in the rhino horn value chain.  

The upliftment of communities in poaching regions by appropriate engagement involves installation of aquaponic units with appropriate training to improve the nutritional status, particularly of children in the region, and building educational programmes around these units. 

The Rhino Education project aims to facilitate a greater understanding of the world’s five remaining species of rhino, encourage a deeper exploration of human and environmental challenges which threaten their survival, and actively contribute towards wildlife conservation. The project plans to roll out a ‘Digi-pal’ system in the near future for children to communicate with each other globally on conservation. 

The fourth component of the project – rhino research and data involves  using the website to create a dedicated portal for storage and distribution of rhino related information and data that is made available to all interested parties. 

On the basic premise of the project, Larkin said that radioactive rhino horn increases the probability of poachers getting apprehended. The consequences of being caught in possession of illicit radioactivity are significantly greater than for illegal possession of rhino horn. Radiation technology and its implementation globally has expanded greatly owing to nuclear and radiological security concerns. The illicit possession of radioactive material in South Africa, for instance, is considered a “Crime against the State”.  

The key question that the project seeks to answer involves its justification in terms of optimising on results and the radioactive dose limits. The research, thus, involves assessment of the movement of the dose compounds through rhino horn, as well as identification of appropriate radioisotopes to be administered. Of primary concern is whether or not there is any movement of compounds from the horn back into the rhino across the growth plate from the point of view of a safety concern from rhino owners that the animals will not be internally contaminated by any radioisotopes and thereby put these animals at additional risk. 

According to Larkin, dose assessment is a vital aspect of the whole project as it will then allow the team to “justify, optimise, and set dose limits for the exposure of these animals, necessary for the safety and regulation of this process.”  

“In many ways this will be the hardest aspect of the work as there are going to be numerous criteria that will need to be considered, including that the chosen radioisotopes be readily available and their cost”, Larkin said. “What will the cost of the radioisotopes be? These animals have a commercial value and a significant protection cost. Will the use of radioisotopes significantly reduce the protection costs? A balance between the potential harm to the animal versus detection of the isotope after a number of years needs to be struck from the viewpoint of regulatory approval”, he added.   

The questions the scientists seek to answer are that given a rhino can live for up to 40 years and their horn grows 4 – 7 cm a year, how will this effect the choice of isotope, and on how many times does one treat an animal bearing in mind the risks, as well as costs associated with darting a rhino. 

There is a significant cost to protecting rhino. For example, on a game farm in South Africa’s Eastern Cape region a team of six US veterans costs $18,000 per month, currently paid for by charitable donations.

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