A Witwatersrand University Professor wants to save rhinos – with tech used to stop nuclear bomb smug
Updated: Jan 10
South Africa's rhino population is dwindling, with the demand for the animals' horns fuelling rampant poaching.
Cracking cross-border smuggling syndicates would go a long way in disrupting the illicit supply chain.
And one professor at the University of the Witwatersrand hopes that injecting horns with radioactive material will lead to more border arrests.
These small traces of radioactive material can be detected by radioactive scanners already in use at airports, harbors, and border crossings.
These scanners are part of the war on terrorism and are used to detect nuclear weapons.
Injecting small traces of radioactive material into rhino’s horn could go a long way in halting cross-border smugglers and poachers, using the same method already
stopping the movement of nuclear weapons.
More than 3,200 rhinos have been poached in South Africa in the last five years. The Kruger National Park's rhino population has declined by close to 60% over the past decade. The demand for rhino horns, especially in Asia, has left the species critically endangered.
Heavily armed poachers, funded by international crime syndicates, continue to infiltrate South Africa's government reserves and private property, with rangers and police unable to effectively stem the illicit flow of horn beyond the country's borders.
But a new project, led by Professor James Larkin, director at the radiation and health physics unit at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), aims to severely disrupt these smuggling operations by taking the fight to the border posts.
The Rhisotope Project looks to use nuclear science in a novel way for conservation by making rhino horns radioactive. It aims to do this by embedding small traces of radioactive material that are non-lethal to the rhino into the horn.
Technology that's used globally to detect radioactive material, in response to the war on terrorism to stop the cross-border movement of nuclear weapons, can then be used to identify the horns and the gangs attempting to smuggle them. This is done through handheld radiation scanners, which are already part of the border guards' toolkit.
"There are about 11,000 installed radiation monitors in airports, harbors and border crossings, and this means that a [rhino horn] shipment will have a greater risk of being detected," said Larkin, in a report first published by Wits.
"It will be like putting a car tracker into a horn."
The Rhisotope Project hopes that better detection will lead to the arrest of smugglers, which, in turn, will break a vital link in the illicit supply chain. Larkin also hopes that once it's known that horns contain radioactive material, they'll be less desirable, thereby decreasing demand.
But before this project can be put into action, much more testing needs to be done.
As a priority, the Wits-led project, in collaboration with Texas A&M, and Colorado State University, needs to prove that the procedure is safe and that it will not harm the animal or the environment. This includes testing different doses on a model of a rhino's head that has been created with a 3D printer.
"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," said Larkin.
The modeling will probably take between three to four months to complete, Larkin told Business Insider SA, with testing done as independently as possible so that "when we arrive at the final results, we can be certain that what we say is in fact true.”
"Unfortunately, this sort of work is incredibly expensive," added Larkin, noting that the process has been frustrating at times because of a lack of resources. The project is in the process of negotiating a collaborative agreement with a South African company, which should unlock significant funding.
"We will not only be looking at rhinoceros but also elephants in the near future, and in the longer term, try to find ways to work with other 'at risk' species."