Isotope-based project aims to curb rhino poaching

19 May 2021

A new international project to use nuclear science-based techniques to drastically reduce rhinoceros poaching has been launched in South Africa. The Rhisotope Project was initiated by the University of Witwatersrand in collaboration with the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, Colorado State University (USA), Russian nuclear company Rosatom and the Nuclear Energy Corporation of South Africa as well as global scientists, researchers, rhino owners and veterinary surgeon and rhino expert William Fowlds.

(Image: Rhisotope Project)

The project will investigate introducing harmless amounts 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.

"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," Rosatom said.

The first phase of the project, which began on 13 May, saw trace amounts of harmless, stable isotopes introduced into the horns of two rhinos - named Igor, after Soviet nuclear physicist Igor Kurchatov, and Denver, after the state capital of Colorado - in the Buffalo Kloof Private Game Reserve. Igor and Denver will be monitored over the next three months to understand how the isotopes interact with the horn and the animal.

Stable isotopes have been injected into the horns of two rhino (Image: Rhisotope Project)
Once a proof of concept has been demonstrated, the technique will 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 wish to use the process to protect animals against poaching.

According to the South African Department for Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment, 394 rhino were poached for their horn in South Africa during 2020. Trade in rhino horn is illegal and banned internationally, but illicit sales continue. At a price of about USD50,000 per kilogram, rhino horn is one of the most valuable substances on earth, the Rhisotope Project says, and its trade is linked with major black market crimes including weapons, drugs and human trafficking. South Africa is home to 90% of the world's rhino population, but from 2010 to 2019 over 9600 rhinos were killed in poaching attacks, but at the current rate of loss wild rhino will be extinct in less than 8 to 10 years.

The Rhisotope project is also working on community uplift and investment, education and rhino research.

James Larkin, director of the University of Witwatersrand's Radiation and Health Physics Unit at the in Johannesburg, said South Africa is one of the few countries where it is possible to see the so-called "big five" animals (lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and Cape buffalo). "We've got to work hard to maintain that … for the people's employment, for the benefit of everyone who lives and works around the game farm. You have to realise 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," he said.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News