Fight against rhino poaching goes nuclear

Nearly three years ago, James Larkin was having a casual lunch date with friends when the rhino-poaching crisis came up in their conversation. “Someone said, ‘Why can’t we just zap them [rhinos] with radiation’?” I said: ‘No, because I’ll end up in prison’,” he recollects.

But for Larkin, a seed had been planted. “Because of my background in nuclear security, I thought I could put small quantities [of radioactive material] into the horn, which would then set off the detectors”, says the director of the radiation and health physics unit at University of the Witwatersrand. There are more than 11 000 radiation detectors installed at ports and airports around the globe.

From there, the idea snowballed. Larkin began asking his international colleagues what they thought of his “crazy idea” of inserting nuclear technologies — radioisotopes — into the horn to deter poaching. 

“They all said ‘we’re very interested’ and asked me, ‘have you thought about this and about that?’ We’ve ended up talking to various US agencies, [and] the International Atomic Energy Agency and either they’re pro it or they’re neutral. No one has said, ‘for God’s sake don’t do that’.”

In May last year, the first phase of the Rhisotope project got underway when Igor and Denver, two rhinos in the Eastern Cape, were darted and sedated and a cocktail of harmless stable isotopes, which are non-radioactive, were introduced into their horns. A compound called proline, an amino acid with tracking atoms, was inserted into the horns. 

Faecal and periodic blood samples, collected over several months, were analysed by the University of Pretoria.

“We’ve done the first phase of the research, which was to see if there’s any movement of material from the horn into the body of the animal,” says Larkin. “And we have successfully finished that work and demonstrated that there isn’t any movement.” 

The pioneering project is being run under the umbrella of Wits University and implemented by the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, Colorado State University, Rosatom, the Nuclear Energy Corporation of South Africa, global scientists, researchers, local rhino owners and veterinary surgeon Dr William Fowlds.

After the success of the first phase, the second phase is focused on modelling radiological doses. According to Rosatom, they “will not only be affordable, long lasting and detectable by existing radiation detection monitors around the world, but, at the same time, will cause zero harm to any animal which has its horn treated as per the most stringent global best practices of radiation protection”.

Researchers will CT scan and 3D print an entire rhino head, which will have similar shielding properties to animal flesh. They will then put radioactive material into the horn. By placing detectors in various other parts of the head, they will be able to measure the dosage that those parts of the head will receive from the radioactive material in the horn. 

“We are now at the stage where we are doing some computer modelling with various international organisations in Russia, the US and in Australia and we will be starting here in South Africa in the next couple of weeks, to demonstrate what doses might be received by the animal by putting radioisotopes into the horn,” Larkin says, adding that there is a great deal of interest in the technique from private rhino owners and veterinary surgeons.

The intellectual property, training and assistance will be freely available to conservation organisations. The Rhisotope project, says Suzanne Boswell, the project’s co-founder, is not a silver bullet solution. “It’s just another layer of protection for the rhino on the ground. Our most important objective is to start an effective demand-reduction programme. 

“When you say radiation and nuclear, everyone says, ‘oh my God, it’s Chernobyl. 

We need that perception, because we don’t want people to obviously use it [rhino horn]. With the radioisotopes that we’re putting into the horn, it makes it traceable …,” Boswell says. “Now we’re giving numerous layers of protection for the animals to just stop people from wanting to a) use it and b) making it too high risk for the syndicates to actually transport it because then it puts them at massive risk of losing their multi-million rand containers full of illegal materials.”

Dehorning is an unnatural, although effective exercise. Nature “doesn’t make mistakes”, Boswell says. “If we can then apply the science and conservation hand in hand, hopefully, we can have a whole bunch of rhino with horns. If we do get the funding we’re searching for, our goal is over the next three years to treat 1 000 rhinos.

“What we would love to do, after we’ve done all the research and the fieldwork, then James will train up veterinary teams and they can do it. Our goal is still to supply the radioisotopes as a donation,” Boswell adds.

“Our intention is not to say this is ours and we’re the only team that can do it. With dehorning you have to do it every 16 to 18 months … With us, we can treat the horn and it can last for four years. So, you put the rhinos in less danger because you’re not sedating them as often.”

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Sheree Bega
Sheree Bega is an environment reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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