On September 16th, the first phase of the Rhisotope Project aimed at curbing rhino poaching in South Africa using nuclear technologies – radioisotopes – was successfully completed.
The initial stage of the project was dedicated to proving that there was no movement of the stable isotopes from the horn of the rhino into the body of the animal. In order to prove this, Igor and Denver, two rhinos, were darted and sedated, at which point the cocktail of stable isotopes was introduced into their horn. These two animals were isolated into a separate camp where they were closely observed. Highly trained rangers collected daily faecal as well as periodic blood samples. The various samples were analysed to look at the 13C/12C and 15N/14N ratios, which have subsequently indicated that there has been no movement of material from the animals’ horns.
The success of the first stage demonstrates that any subsequent radioisotopes that are deposited into the horn, using a specialized technique, which has been developed for the project, will remain in the horn and will not move back into the animal.
The research initiative brought together South Africa, Australia, the USA and Russia. Rosatom has become a key partner in the unique programme. Today, the team is ready to move to the second phase, which will concentrate on the modelling of radiological doses. 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.
“Scientific cooperation must transcend borders, time zones and continents if we are to save our common home and address environmental challenges. We are very pleased that this project will join the list of successful initiatives between South Africa and Russia,” said Russian Ambassador to South Africa Ilya Rogachev on May 13th commenting on the launch of the Project.
Once the study is completed, the project will be extended to the whole of Africa and other continents. Conservation organisations will be able to benefit from the training programmes free of charge. The project could also be used to save other endangered species.
“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,” said Prof. James Larkin, Director of Radiation and Health Physics Unit at the University of the Witwatersrand and the founder of the Project.
Ryan Collyer, CEO of Rosatom Central and Southern Africa, is confident that nuclear science will play a fundamental role in protecting African rhinos and biodiversity in general. “We are incredibly proud to play a key role in this amazing initiative that will help save these incredible animals from imminent extinction,” he said.
About the Rhisotope Project:
The Rhino Project is an initiative between WITS University, top global nuclear scientists, researchers, South African rhino owners and the best wildlife veterinarians in the world to significantly reduce rhino poaching. In short, by placing radioactive material in rhino’s horn, we create an effective demand reduction and rhino protection tool. It is giant leap forward in the protection of this endangered species. If the appetite for horn lowers so will poaching, the two challenges are not mutually exclusive and are inextricably linked.
The purpose of the project is to create a lasting and effective means of significantly lowering the amount of rhino being poached and killed for their horns. These animals need us more than you know. Through this project, The Rhisotope Project will provide an effective tool in the toolkit of rhino protection, innovation and the ability to evolve as the landscape changes is key.
With the international nuclear and radiological expertise brought by Rosatom to this project, it will make a significant contribution to saving and protecting rhino by reducing the desire for rhino horn, by both poachers and the end user, through the effective use of radioactive technologies currently available. This will enable on the anti-poaching teams to be more effective, as well as assisting international and South African law enforcement agencies track and trace the rhino horn trafficking channels by using current nuclear security capabilities in airports and harbours. Trafficked rhino horn is not an industry of its own, it has become another lucrative “commodity” for the biggest crime syndicates to benefit from. Even though the trade in rhino horn is illegal and banned internationally, there are many countries that drive the illicit sale of horn.