Rhisotope: Addressing Poaching By Making Rhinoceros Horns Radioactive

There is no question that poaching has become an existential threat to the five species of rhinoceros alive today. Even the wildlife reserves where most rhinos live struggle to provide protection from the wanton and cruel poaching of the world’s last remaining rhinos.

Poachers are generally looking to sell the horns which consist of pure keratin, the same material that makes up our fingernails and hair. Rhino horns have seen a big rise in demand the past decades, with a black market in Vietnam representing the biggest buyers, primarily for use in fever and other medicines, as well as for processing into carved trinkets. This has contributed to a further rhino population collapse. Statistics from 2017 show about 18,000 white rhinos and fewer than 5,500 black rhinos remaining. Recently, the northern white rhino population in Africa went effectively extinct with the death of the last known male individual.

Clearly, if we wish to prevent extinction, we need to deal with poaching. The latest suggestion here is part of the Rhisotope project. This would make rhino horns radioactive, but how exactly would doing so prevent poaching? Let’s take a look.

Preventing Poaching

A rhino de-horning in progress. No horn means no poaching. (Credit: WildLifeAct.com)

The act of poaching is defined as ‘the illegal hunting or capturing of wild animals’. In modern day this mostly refers to the illegal killing of endangered species. The driving force behind much of the poaching in African rural areas is that of poverty. With a kilogram of rhino horn valued at around $60,000 on the black market, even if the poacher gets only a fraction of this from a roughly three kilogram horn, it’s still a highly profitable risk to take despite the increasing security in wildlife reserves.

These high stakes have led to an escalating war between well-armed poachers and security forces, tragically leading to deaths on both sides. Poachers who are brought to justice face prison sentences of up to 25 years. An attempt to reduce the demand in 2013 by literally poison rhino horns to make consuming them dangerous was ultimately cancelled. So far, de-horning rhinos without harming them has been the most effective poached deterrent.

Yet obviously removing the horn from every rhino is not an ideal approach, as they do use their horns for marking their territory and in courtship. Ideally rhinos could keep their horns while also making them unsuitable or impossible to get for buyers in the black market. This is where the Rhisotope project comes into play. Not only will it make the horns easy to track using existing radiation detectors at airports and harbors around the globe, it should not affect the animals themselves.

The Rhisotope Project

In a collaboration between by the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg (WITS), Russian nuclear energy corporation Rosatom, Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO), and Colorado State University (CSU) along with international scientists, the Rhisotope project has a number of goals:

  1. Demand reduction and horn devaluation
  2. Education
  3. Community social uplift and investment
  4. Research on rhinos

Despite rhinos having been around longer than humans by a few million years, we still know precious little about these last remnants of Earth’s mega fauna. In order to better protect these animals, scientists from WITS, CSU, and other universities are seeking to learn more about rhino physiology. This will also help the education goal, which seeks to make it easy for teachers and others to incorporate educational programs that teach younger generations about why we need to protect rhinos from extinction.

As a largely poverty-driven problem, fixing the poverty problem should go a long way to reducing the willingness of the local population to poach. To illustrate the scale here, if say a local farmer were to assist in the poaching of a rhino, they might get 10,000 South African Rand for it, which converts to roughly $726 USD. Not a lot, one might think, but for the truly poor, this could mean the difference between slow starvation and living like a king for years.

This then leaves the proverbial elephant in the room, with the first point about horn devaluation. While local poachers are part of the problem, there is an international network of crime organizations and black market trading that involves not only rhino horns and elephant tusks, but also other illegal and highly profitable goods. The idea is to make rhino horns unattractive for these organizations, thus reducing demand.

This is where the radioactive isotopes come into play.

From Criminal to Terrorist

Stable isotopes being injected into the horn of a rhino. (Credit: Rhisotope project)

As detailed on the Rhisotope project Facebook page, the first steps towards injecting radioactive isotopes (radioisotopes) into rhino horns have commenced, with the injection with first stable isotopes. The goal of this is to see how these materials behave when in the horn.

As a research project, it brings together the expertise and know-how from both wildlife experts and experts on radioisotopes to answer a few basic questions:

  • How stable is any isotope in a rhino horn?
  • Which radioisotope might be most suitable?
  • How can it scale from a handful of rhinos to tens of thousands?

The radiation from these would not be enough to cause any harm to the animal. But smuggling the horn through illicit channels becomes immensely more difficult as the tell-tale radioactive signature would be hard to hide.

Presumably the radioisotope that would be picked would be a Gamma or Beta emitter, as these are significantly harder to block than Alpha (large helium atoms) radiation. This radiation would make the horn, and any shipping container it would be placed into, light up light a Christmas tree on any of the radiation detectors used at borders and ports around the world.

Essentially this would make smuggling these radioactive horns as appealing as smuggling enriched uranium or plutonium through checkpoints. Checks for radioactive material has become much more intense since the 2001 terrorist attack in the US as detailed in this PDF document from 2002 by Interpol, Europol and the IAEA on the detection of radioactive material at borders.

No Simple Solution

Solving the problem of poaching is not easy. While the multiple targets of the Rhisotope projects should give it a pretty good shot at fixing a lot of the problems at hand, ultimately we’re talking about tackling both poverty and international criminal organizations. Neither of these are problems that are new, let alone easy to solve.

Perhaps the idea of strapping the radioisotope equivalent of a GPS tracker to every single rhino horn will make smuggling them unattractive. But it’s something that is incredibly hard to predict.

The demand for horns seems to be increasing. When The Conversation asked people in Vietnam about buying and using rhino horn-based products, it was quite clear that current approaches to deter people from buying these products aren’t effective. In general, the buyers did not care about the plight of rhinos, nor did they buy into the fact that consuming rhino horn is as medicinal as gnawing on your own fingernails. To them, the luxury status and general benefit of these products are larger than those facts.

Time is Running Out

Perhaps the most tragic aspect of the Rhisotope project is that it may be our last attempt at saving these animals from extinction. With experts predicting a whole-scale African rhino population collapse within a decade, this is not an issue where we can check back in a couple of years to see whether things have gotten better. This means not only dealing with poaching, but also finding ways in which human and other animal populations can peacefully co-exist.

Rhinos find themselves running out of habitat, and threatened by poachers as well as trophy hunters. It might only be a matter of years before we find ourselves saying not only farewell to the last rhino, but also the last African elephant, the last giraffe, and many other iconic animals.

For today’s generations, this might be the moment where one has to think about what to tell one’s children and grand-children when asked why we let all of these animals go extinct. We may have years, maybe decades at most, but looking at the plummeting population numbers there can be no mistake that extinction is inevitable for these species unless we act today.

(Heading image: Dr. William Fowlds comforting a rhino as part of the Rhisotope project. Credit: Rhisotope project)

51 thoughts on “Rhisotope: Addressing Poaching By Making Rhinoceros Horns Radioactive

  1. “Presumably the radioisotope that would be picked would be a Gamma or Beta emitter”
    Interesting, So Rhinos are immune to the effects of these radioactive emissions?

    1. The really great thing about gamma radiation is that it is very easy to detect in alarmingly small quantities. A good crystal detector (far more sensitive than a Geiger tube) pings around a thousand times a second at normal background rates, and can detect the unique signatures of dozens of isotopes even among all that background.

      The fact that even just ordinary background can producing apparently alarming levels of “OMG RADIATION!” signal makes many ignorant people uncomfortable.

      1. Certainly there are levels of particle radiation and ionizing radiation that vary considerably within the environment and I was not having a panic attack of “OMG” etc. I have had nuclear medicine injections (Chosen for best enhanced viewing (absorption by tissues etc.)/vs safety and fast clearing from the body to do minimum damage). Among other experiences, I also was present during an episode of periodic testing of a TRIGA reactor in the early 80’s when it was “pulsed”, and was able to view the resultant Cherenkov radiation.
        What this “ignorant” person was referring to was the material that in the pic is being injected into what appears to be the base of the horn (presumably where growth takes place?) where in order to be effective one would expect it to be a somewhat long lasting isotope precluding the necessity of re-capture of the rhino every x days/weeks to re- inject. Ingestion, Inhalation, and Injection of radioisotopes is not quite the same as environmental background…I was hoping for a more considered opinion on the relevant info by someone in the know

    2. Three conditions are satisfied that make this work:
      1) Most materials have low attenuation for 100 keV – 1 MeV photons, a plastic or Al container, even a wooden crate, are rather transparent in that energy region
      2) The radiation background is pretty low in that energy range
      3) energy dispersive x-ray / gamma detection works with single photons

      0.1 µSv/h = 0.1µJ/(kg*h) (weighting factor = 1)
      0.1 µJ ~ 624150 photons, 1 MeV each, or ~173 counts per second.

      If I didn’t booger up the calculations, that’s just below 14 counts/sec/m² in 1 m distance and within plausible limits of large area detector technology.

  2. If you’re the sort of person who enjoys messing with people, try suggesting this to the zookeepers next time you visit a zoo with rhinos:

    * Legalise the trade in rhino horns.
    * Harvest the horn from all the rhinos in captivity
    * Sell the horn

    Removing their horns doesn’t hurt rhinos; in fact, one of the problems of keeping them in captivity is finding ways for them to wear their horns down enough that they don’t grow to be a problem. Rhino horns grow back after trimming so you get a harvest each year. The stuff is worth mind-boggling amounts on the open market; the increased supply should help to reduce the market price, making poaching less profitable, while the proceeds from sales can be used to fund conservation efforts.

    I honestly struggle to see the flaw in this plan. But every time I suggest it, I just get looked at like I’m from some other planet.

    1. The complaint I’ve usually heard about that sort of thing is that the captive-bred product is indistinguishable from the wild product, so anybody who’s selling poached product can just claim that it’s captive-bred. You either need to be able to authenticate it directly, or you need really good supply chain accounting.

      1. Oh, yeah, and for this particular product, there’s also the problem that you’re selling quack pseudomedicine, which is kind of frowned upon in most places.

    2. It’s an interesting idea, but the flaw I see is that this would both legitimize the market and expand it, beyond what could be harvested from zoos and since the only alternative to zoo horn is wild horn your just exacerbating the problem.

    3. There was a project looking at manufacturing fake horn, chemically identical to the real stuff. They could really flood the market with it. The risk is that the demand increases and it doesn’t actually stop poaching, but if they can make enough to really flood the market and keep it up for long enough, it should be good.

      1. I heard they had actually implemented this plan. But the result was that buyers demanded flesh attached to the horn to proove it’s authenticity. Making the act even more barbaric

    4. “I honestly struggle to see the flaw in this plan.”

      It feeds the utterly disproven idea that rhino horn is an effective remedy for anything at all.

      Just having something on the label of a product fools people into believing that it’s credible. That’s why you see gluten free shampoo and why people want to label GMO foods. That’s why people want homeopathic products removed from the shelves at the store. We don’t need people believing and buying and spreading the idea that buying rhino horn to fix some problem they have is a thing that anybody should do. Those people are dangerously wrong and should not be encouraged.

  3. Is anyone looking at the other side of the trade? Idiots buying keratin for huge prices, presumably they don’t fear any repercussions from the law or from their social circles. They’re not put off the ‘medicinal’ use by the fact there is no medicinal use. How about we flood the market with fake rhino horn that’s actually harmful? Make it so that no one wants it.

    1. Hey I’m all for selling “tainted” horn, I wonder if it would be possible to inoculate the Rhino horn with ultra lethal doses of, say botulinum toxin, that would kill the horn consumer but not be absorbed into the Rhino’s body. That would make Mr. Nguyen stick to Viagara!

    2. Reminds me of Eddie Murphy in Golden Child or what ever the name of that movie is, where he looks at Yack loin and the guy tells him good for keep yang up ! NONE of this crap is what it is claimed . Like Sok Puppete said, QUACK MEDICINE. I like the idea of making it harmful to use but we all know that will never fly. I go along with the idea of letting the zoos be the salvation of species once the species of IDIOTs are extinct!

    3. As I read the article, I was wondering whether the effect of this information might also be a psychological deterrent. People could be convinced that “radioactive horn poisons child, parents distraught”.

      So, what if a moderate amount of internet traffic started admitting that the last male northern white rhino had already been doped; his horn contains a known amount of a toxic substance. It should be noted that some people taking rhino horn would die simply because if statistical chance, but now that chance has been increased by this toxin. Best that everyone should be wary.

      Or maybe we should just CRISPR a baby rhino and modify the horn tissue to produce ricin as well as keratin.

  4. I think you do an injustice by pointing fingers at trophy hunters. Trophy hunters are operating under the law and guidance of conservationists. A handful of well selected animals being removed from the ecosystem can have beneficial effects for the wildlife community as a whole as well as the revenue generated from these hunts benefits conservation efforts and the local economy. The real enemy is poachers who are not abiding by the law and therefore are not under the direction of wildlife conservationists.

  5. So, on the plus side, you get some increase in detection.

    On the minus side, people dealing in rhino horn at the retail level get a quick screening test to detect obvious fakes made from ground up something-else horns, which would presumably otherwise require DNA work or something. As sellers of fakes adapt to that, you might also get a lot of radioactive something-else horn gumming up the system… maybe even more radioactive than the real stuff, possibly to the point of being dangerous.

    Also maybe the skills to avoid radiation detection become more widespread among smugglers.

    Those aren’t necessarily decisive minuses, but it doesn’t seem like a completely obvious tradeoff.

    Alternative: create genetically tagged rhinos whose horns can be distinguished from the wild type in a lab, or maybe even in the field. Farm them for their horns. Legalize trade in (only) the GM horn. I guess the sorts of superstitious idiots who buy this stuff would probably reject it, though.

    1. at $60k/kg, any serious dealer would invest a few $k into a gamma spectrometer…the isotope they’ll be using will likely be something exotic which is next to impossible to obtain outside of nuclear research and will have a unique spectrum.

      1. Low-level dealers wouldn’t be handling kilogram quantities and would probably be using cheap counters. Even heavy users might have them. That’s who you’re targeting.

        When you’re dealing on a sclale where you start thinking about gamma spectrometry, I suspect that doing PCR to find actual rhino DNA would be cheaper, if slower and a bit more skill intensive.

        Also, I’m not so sure that the nuclear people are going to let loose of anything really exotic for this kind of thing, nor do I think anybody would pay for it if they did. Remember, the real point is just to trip detectors at borders. Once detected, the actual product can already be identified in a lab without any exotic isotope signature. I think they’d just dump in the first chemically suitable, slightly radioactive thing they found. And if they do use something exotic, then THAT becomes a kind of contraband you have to worry about.

        I wonder how the customers would react to the product being radioactive to begin with.

        1. The clientele is basically impotent old Asian men who think it will work like viagra for them. And it won’t bother them anymore than it bothers a drug addict that their drug of choice is cut with Comet or some other industrial chemical.

    2. First off you’re dealing with thugs who don’t really care what they sell to whom as long as they make bank. Don’t think they don’t already cut Rhino horn powder. Secondly we are decades or more away from that star trek level solution of genetically engineered Rhinos.

  6. Vietnam, China, Cambodia, Croatia and North Korea are the primary destination countries for keratin. Maybe add something that is toxic to Humans but safe for Rhinos. If the “medicine” made from keratin is toxic enough that should drive down sales. Or maybe it will remove the stupid people who want buy keratin for 6k a kg.

  7. While I don’t know exactly how Rhinos use their horns, since you say they use them in display, etc… couldn’t they cut off the real horn and attach (nail or glue) a fake horn onto the dehorned Rhino? If a fake fiberglass horn would enable the Rhino to go about it’s business, but it was safety orange so poachers would know not to bother with it, that might help the situation.

  8. Frankly I just fail to see how ANY plan aside from educating STUPID people is going to succeed, and even that’s questionable, it hasn’t worked yet. Hell even making punishment for a crime such as murder ultimately final, isn’t deterring murder. Irradiate the horns and the animal is still DED once a poacher has done the deed. Ranchers put dogs and other predators down for killing livestock so what’s different here?

    1. Poachers are already shot in sight when they’re caught often, so that’s not stopping them. Desperate people. The poachers are just doing what they can to make money, and there’ll always be someone at that level. It’s not just general poverty causing the problem; the majority of locals are poor but don’t shoot rhinos. If we had rhinos in the west, there’s still someone with too much credit card debt or too lazy to work who’d shoot the rhino for a quick buck.

    2. When someone is so poor that they know they will die and their whole family will die, it becomes a risk/reward situation. Either the individual does what they have already tried and risks the life of everyone they are responsible for, or they try poaching and either get money or die themself. The risk is worth it compared to an already certain death.

      Same with drugs. Removing the demand for illegal substances works. Attempting to remove the supply just drives the prices up and makes dealing more profitable.

      1. Indeed. It would be interesting to see what poppy extinction would do towards addressing an insatiable need. The poor are just the middlemen in this and making them less poor will not change the demand, just who’s the new middlemen.

      2. Perhaps specifically make it legal to make fakes of certain illegal goods to sell as the real thing (as in specific exemptions to false advertising laws) so that the sellers of the illegal goods would end up competing with legal sales of fakes?

  9. First off there are not enough Rhinos in captivity to do this. Second the demand from creepy old men needing quack cures for their impotency is insatiable.

    Rhinos will keep getting poached.

    The original solution is the best. Take captured horns and irradiate the snot out of them and put them on the black market. It will take care of the problem within a year or so.

  10. So let me get this straight: We make the rhino easier for the poachers to find, using a comparatively inexpensive detector, which also acts as a way for them to tell the difference between a treated and untreated rhino, all to make the horn easier to to find at ports- which by that time, of course, the rhino is already dead.

    Nope, can’t find any flaws in that plan at all.

    It’s also worth noting that the poachers will often kill an de-horned rhino specifically so they don’t waste time tracking it again. So basically radio-tagging one makes it easier to find, and when they do find it, they’ll shoot it anyway.

    Nope. Not gonna work. The only thing that’ll work is to go after the demand. Either reduce demand through some kind of PR campaign- and we all know how well those have worked- or treat the horn so it’s toxic. And I mean truly toxic- IE, you die or at least get explosive diahrrea or something if you ingest any.

  11. $60K a Kg!
    Wow! Price has sure gone up.

    Back in the early 90’s, pay a $40K USD fee to shoot a Rhino. Local village gets the meat & hide. You get the horn. Tail & feet if you push it. Hope on a plane to Asia, sell the horn for $60K to $80K USD. Repeat.

    Poachers? For the grunts on the ground:
    – A month to three month’s pay for a day’s work.
    – If they get caught, they go to prison: a roof over their heads and three meals a day.
    How could they go wrong.

  12. What might bother them is a disinformation campaign.

    “Rhino horns now being tagged with radioactive isotopes, which are harmless to the animal and to people consuming the product.

    BUT IS IT REALLY HARMLESS!?!?!? Consuming radioactive Rhino horn has been shown to make your penis fall off/go soft/whatever! “

    1. “Fall off” is a little difficult to achieve and soft it is already anyway. Otherwise the man would not buy the horn. I would emphasize the risk of testicle cancer caused by the specific used isotope. And that this is normally treated by castration.

  13. While the aim of the project is certainly noble, it will drive up prices further. For it to work, every single living rhino will need to be darted at massive expense.

    Trying to convince buyers that rhino horn is really worthless is like convincing the world that diamonds are worthless. It simply won’t happen before rhinos are wiped out completely. All this while rhino horn is really a renewable resource which could potentially contribute billions of dollars to conservation, without killing a single rhino. But due to the ban on trade, a dead rhino is now worth more than a living one.

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