Rhisotope project demonstrates radioisotopes safe for animals, community outreach launched

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The community outreach initiative of the Rhisotope Project got underway earlier this month in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa following the successful completion of the first phase of the project, according to a statement by the Russian state atomic energy corporation Rosatom.  

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 horn.  It 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.  

The project 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. 

“Following the success of Phase 1 of Rhisotope Project the next exciting aspect, the community outreach initiative, is underway. On November 16, a large scale aquaponics unit, situated in Paterson was launched”, a Rosatom statement said.  

Phase 1 of the Rhisotope Project demonstrated that radioisotopes deposited into the horn of the rhino remain in the horn and do not move back into the animal. “This demonstrates that the project will be safe for the animals, marking a very key milestone in the project. Phase 2 of the innovative project is planned to commence in January 2022”, the statement added.  

“The Rhisotope Project has reached the first major milestone in being able to demonstrate to the regulator, the university’s animal ethics committee, and stakeholders in the welfare of rhinos that it is completely safe for the animals”, Dr. James Larkin, Director of Radiation and Health Physics Unit at the University of Witwatersrand and the founder of the project, said in a statement. 

The aim of the community outreach initiative is to engage with the locals to help raise awareness of the issue. “It is common knowledge that no species can be protected unless local communities and stakeholders play an active part of this process”, the statement said. 

Rosatom, which is the founding sponsor of the Rhisotope project launched the aquaponics unit, as well as the education programme in the Eastern Cape. The Aquaponic system was installed by leading aquaponic specialists, La Pieus Aqua (LPA).  The Chief Executive of LPA is an 18-year-old ecology activist Rikalize Reinecke, who started her own aquaculture and aquaponics farm in 2014. 

“Aquaponics is the most innovative farming method of the new century. This system gives you the opportunity to process food in your backyard and generate an income. One system can feed a family of four to six people sustainably”, Reinecke said. 

According to Rosatom. the aquaponics unit is run by local volunteers in collaboration with The Amakhala Foundation which recently won the prestigious Rhodes University Community Engagement Partner of the Year Award.  

All produce from the greenhouse will go to feed the families of the local volunteers, supply healthy and nutritious vegetables to a local soup kitchen and orphanage, as well as sell fresh produce to local lodges to keep the system sustainable.  

The first harvest from the unit has already been sold to the nearest Safari Lodge and generated its first income. The programme is also meant to help to build and encourage entrepreneurial and business development opportunities for the volunteers, the statement said.  

Local school children will also benefit from the project in the form of presentations on the Rhisotope Project and why rhinos matter in their everyday lives.  The informative lectures will be enhanced and supplemented by supplying the learners with educational support materials, the statement added.  

The Rhisotope project has four related components of demand reduction and horn devaluation, community upliftment and investment, education, as well as rhino research and data. The rationale for inserting a measured quantity of radioisotopes into the horn of a rhinoceros is 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.   

According to Professor Larkin, 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. 

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