Nuclear initiative aims to save rhinos

20 May 2021

The Rhisotope Project, formally launched on 13 May, aims to investigate and establish whether it is possible to place radioactive isotopes into the horn of a rhinoceros to prevent poaching and significantly lower demand for rhino horn in places such as Vietnam and China. It is an initiative involving South Africa’s Witwatersrand University, Russia’s Rosatom, the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (Ansto), the Nuclear Energy Corporation of South Africa (Necsa) and Colorado State University (USA) together with global scientists and researcher from Care for Wild (the world’s largest rhino orphanage, South African rhino owners and one of the best rhino veterinary surgeons in the world, Dr William Fowlds. 

The purpose of the project is to create a lasting and effective means to significantly reduce the number of rhinos being poached and killed for their horns. The Rhisotope Project says on its website that it aims to provide science-based solutions in the toolkit for rhino protection, and that innovation and the ability to evolve as the landscape changes is key. “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.” South Africa is home to 90% of the world's rhino population. From 2010 to 2019, more than 9,600 rhinos were killed by poaching.

The research is headed by Professor James Larkin, Director of the Radiation and Health Physics Unit (RHPU) at Witwatersrand University. He is also the Chairman of the university’s NIH mandated Institutional Biosafety Committee (IBC) and is a past chairman of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) International Nuclear Security Education Network (INSEN). He is a Fellow of the UK Royal Society of Medicine, a member of the US Institute for Nuclear Materials Management, and a founding member of the Southern African Radiation Protection Association (SARPA). At Witwatersrand University he teaches various courses in nuclear security, radiation protection, and nuclear facility leadership, and acts as the university’s radiation safety officer.

The introduction of isotopes into the horn of rhinos will help reduce the demand for them, and also increase the likelihood of detecting contraband. Experts are confident that, with more than 10,000 radiation detection devices installed at various border crossings, transporting the horn will no longer be attractive.

In the first phase of the project, a trace amount of stable non-radioactive isotopes C-13 (carbon) and N-15 (nitrogen) was injected into the horns of two rhinos. Over the next three months, scientists and vets will monitor the medical indications of rhinos to understand how the isotopes behave inside the animal's horn. In the second phase, a scientific commission, which includes all project participants, must confirm, based on the results of analyses, that the isotope does not move inside the animal's body and does not harm it. Then, with the help of a supercomputer and a 3D printer, simulations are carried out that will help determine the appropriate radioisotope and its amount. In the third phase of the project, a radioactive isotope will be injected into the horn. Rosatom plans to supply the radioisotope at the final stage. 

“What could be more international and unifying than science? Scientific collaboration must go beyond borders, time zones and continents if we are to preserve our common home and solve environmental problems. We are very pleased that this project will add to the list of successful initiatives of South Africa and Russia,” said Russia’s Ambassador to South Africa, Ilya Rogachev, at the launch ceremony in the Buffalo Kloof Nature Reserve.

Igor and Denver are the first rhinos to participate in the study. Igor was named after Soviet nuclear physicist Igor Kurchatov and Denver is named after the capital city of Colorado, in recognition of Colorado State University's involvement in the project. Once the research work is successfully completed, the technology can be scaled to the African continent and beyond. Intellectual property as well as training programmes will be provided free of charge to interested environmental organisations. Scaling of the project is planned for other endangered species around the world.

Image: The Rhisotope Project aims to investigate and establish whether it is possible to place radioactive isotopes into the horn of a rhinoceros to prevent poaching

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