An innovative international project is working to curb the illegal trade in African rhino horns by using radioactive isotopes to make them easily traceable, and Russia’s atomic agency Rosatom is playing a key role in it.
More than 9,600 rhinoceroses were killed between 2010 and 2019 as poachers keep hunting for their horns, which cost more than gold and platinum on the black market. Practitioners of Chinese traditional medicine have been named as the chief culprits behind the demand – despite no scientific proof keratin works against any ailments. As increasingly diminishing numbers of rhinos remain, the market has also been spurred by some Asian buyers seeking to boost their status.
An unsettling forecast suggests that in the next nine years rhinos could be put on the brink of extinction in South Africa – the nation that is habitat to some 90% of their global population.
In order to reverse this trend, the Rhisotope Project was launched this May. Its name derived from the words ‘rhino’ and ‘isotope,’ it actually involves radioactive materials and is built on the idea that making the horns unattractive and dangerous for poachers and their buyers would deter their hunt for the endangered species.
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Initiated by the Wits University in South Africa, it has become a major international collaboration with the likes of Rosatom, Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organization (ANSTO), Colorado State University and the Nuclear Energy Corporation of South Africa (Necsa) taking part.
Rather than actually harming those touching the horns, the project aims to make the illegal trade extremely traceable. The rhinos’ horns would be marked with a safe amount of radioactive material so that they would become detectable by some 10,000 radiation scanners installed at airports, train stations and harbors around the globe in recent years.
The hope is that poachers will lose interest in the commodity as its transportation becomes too complicated and dangerous. However, the presence of a radioactive isotope will also serve to devalue the horns in the eyes of the potential buyers.
The first stage of the project has seen stable non-radioactive isotopes being injected into the horns of two South African rhinos. Scientists will monitor these animals until the end of summer to make sure that the foreign materials don’t do any harm to them.
If the procedure proves safe, supercomputers and 3D modeling will be employed to determine the right radioactive isotope and its precise quantity needed to properly mark the rhinos.
The success of the project would be impossible without Rosatom, as the agency is going to provide the very isotope that will be injected into the rhinos’ horns in the final stage. The Russian atomic agency is proud to be playing a key role in the initiative to save these “amazing animals,” Ryan Collier, who heads Rosatom’s branch in Central and South Africa, has said.
“We are confident that science, especially nuclear science, will play a fundamental role in protecting the whole of our planet, not only the rhinoceroses,” he added.
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