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Could this nuclear-based approach curb rhino-poaching?

File - Rhino calves are seen at the Rhino Orphanage in an undisclosed location in the Limpopo province.   -  
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MICHELE SPATARI/AFP or licensors

South Africa

Could this be the future of anti-poaching techniques? In South Africa, researchers from the University of Witwatersrand initiated a nuclear-based approach, that could help drastically reduce the poaching of rhinos.

By introduicing harmless amounts of radioactive isotopes into their horns, researchers aim to make them more detectable when crossing international borders, which should decrease their demand on the market.

"It came from a discussion with friends about two, two and a half years ago. We were looking at other ways, some people had tried to put poison into horns, others tried dye, Those haven't worked very well. So someone said, why don't we try putting radioactive materials into those?" Prof. James Larkin, Director of the Radiation and Health Physics Unit at the University of the Witwatersrand told Euronews.

"You realise it makes a lot of sense. By putting small quantities of radioactive materials in the horn you make it easily detectable to the ten or eleven thousands installed radioation monitors around the world," Prof. James Larkin adds.

The Rhisotope project, carried out in collaboration with several international partners, such as the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO), Colorado State University (USA), ROSATOM (Russian Federation), and the Nuclear Energy Corporation of South Africa (Necsa), aims to put a stop to rhino horn trade, which, despite being illegal and banned internationally, still continues to this day. A kilogram of it can be valued at about $50,000, the Rhisotope Project says.

"The whole idea is that, once we have done the homework, developped the model, we'll make it available to everybody who wants to use it globally. We are happy to teach and happy to help and sort out the supply of radioisotopes and teach them the techinques," Prof. Larkin told Euronews.

"We are very happy to teach the local people how to do it"

According to the South African Department for Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment, 394 rhinos were poached in South Africa during 2020.

At the current rate, wild rhinos could be extinct in less than 8 to 10 years.