University of the Witwatersrand: A new way to save rhinos

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Technology used to stop a nuclear bomb from being sneaked across a border could one day be at the forefront in the fight to save the rhino.

If Professor James Larkin, the Director at the Radiation and Health Physics Unit at Wits University, gets his way, in the near future thousands of border guards across the globe will be the pointsmen in the war against rhino poaching.

Armed with handheld radiation detectors they will be able to sniff out rhino horn as gangs try to smuggle it into countries. Those detectors will be “sniffing” small traces of radioactive material embedded in the horn.

“There are about 11 000 installed radiation monitors in airports, harbours and border crossings and this means that a (rhino horn) shipment will have a greater risk of being detected,” explains Larkin.

Those thousands of radiation scanners scattered across the globe are there because of the war on terror. They are the first line of defence if terrorists attempt to smuggle a nuclear bomb or radioactive material into a country. “It will be like putting a car tracker into a horn,” explains Larkin.

It is still going to be a while before Larkin and his team begin injecting radioactive material into rhino horns. Before that happens there is much laboratory work to be done. Part of that work is calculating what a safe dose is to place in the horn.

To work this out, the team is using computer modelling, where a model of a rhino’s head is created through the use of a 3D printer and various doses are tested.

“We are pulling many different techniques and sciences together in this multidisciplinary Rhisotope Project. We are using work that has been undertaken in conservation, in medical physics, in radiation protection, and in pathology, so that we can put a small quantity of radioactive material into a horn that is detectable, but that won’t unduly harm the animal,” explains Larkin.

The project is an international collaboration that includes assistance from the Colorado State University, Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, and the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation. Before radioactive isotopes are placed into the horn of a live rhino, Larkin and his team will have to prove not only to the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority, but also to ethics committees that the procedure is safe and that it will not harm the animal or environment.

Larkin also hopes that when the word gets out that there is radioactive material in the horns, it might deter some poachers and end users from using the product.

In 2021 a total of 451 rhino were poached in South Africa, of which 327 were killed on government reserves and 124 on private property. In 2022, 259 rhinos were reportedly killed for their horns in South Africa.

Save our rhinos

“I don’t want it to be on my watch that incredible species such as the rhino go extinct. The use of radiation science offers us an alternative and we must take it with precision and committed testing because entire species depend on us, as people, to find solutions to stop the abuse of rhinos,” he concludes.

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