Radioisotope-based conservation project launched to check rhino poaching

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In yet another demonstration of the benefits of nuclear technology, an international project was launched in South Africa earlier this month that aims to drastically reduce the scourge of rhinoceros poaching by introducing radioisotopes into the horn of rhinos. The purpose of the Rhisotope project, formally launched on May 13, is to create an effective means to significantly reduce the number of rhinos being poached and killed for their horns.

According to a statement by the Russian state atomic energy corporation Rosatom, 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 on the international market, as well as making it more detectable when crossing international 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.

The project website says that it aims to provide science-based solutions in the toolkit for rhino protection, and that innovation and the ability to evolve is key to this conservation effort in the rapidly changing landscape. “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”, it said.

Rosatom is a key supporter and partner in the project that was launched at South Africa’s magnificent Buffalo Kloof Private Game Reserve, which is an important collaborator in the project. Under the project’s first phase, a trace amount of completely harmless, stable isotopes will be carefully introduced into the horns of two rhinos. Thereafter, for the next three months, scientists will monitor the rhinos and analyse various samples to understand how the isotope interacts within the horn and the animal, Rosatom said.

“The key aspect of this research will be to confirm that by introducing radioactive isotopes into the horns of these rare and beautiful animals it will cause them no harm. Computer and phantom modelling will also be used to confirm this, as well as identify the appropriate radioactive isotope and quantity to be used,” the Rosatom statement said.

“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,” it added.

Igor and Denver are the rhino pioneers and the main heroes of this project. Igor is named after Igor Kurchatov, a pioneering Soviet nuclear physicist who contributed greatly to the development of civil nuclear technology, while Denver is named after the US state capital of Colorado, in honour of the efforts provided in the project by Colorado State University.

According to the South African Department for Forestry, Fisheries and Environment, 394 rhinos were poached for their horn in South Africa during 2020. With illicit sales valued at around $50,000 per kilogram, rhino horn is one of the most valuable substances on earth, while its trade is linked with major black market crimes, including weapons, drugs and human trafficking, according to the Rhisotope Project. South Africa is home to 90 percent of the world’s rhino population, and from 2010 to 2019, over 9,600 rhinos were killed in poaching attacks. It is estimated that at the current rate of loss, the wild rhino will become extinct in less than 8-10 years.

“One of the very few countries in the world, where you can come and see the big five. 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. You have to realize 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”, said Professor James Larkin, Director at the Radiation and Health Physics Unit at project partner University of Witwatersrand.

Rosatom said that the Rhisotope Project is multifaceted and relies on the key principles of demand reduction and horn devaluation, community upliftment and investment, as well as education, rhino research and data collection.

“We are incredibly proud to play a fundamental role in this amazing initiative, which has the potential to save this incredible species from certain extinction. We are also humbled by the fact that science is able to transcend boundaries, borders and politics as shown by this global initiative in a race against the plight of the African rhino. We believe that science, and particularly nuclear science, will play a fundamental role in not only protecting the rhino, but our planet in general”, said Rosatom Central and Southern Africa CEO Ryan Collyer.

Once the research work has been completed and a proof of concept has been demonstrated, this technique will then be offered to both 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 statement added.

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