Rhisotope” Project: Prof. Larkin interview

What started as a brainwave during a lunch discussion among researchers and scientists might turn into a trailblazing exercise to save the rhino.

Professor James Larkin, from Wits University, is one of the people, along with Suzanne Boswell, spearheading a new scientific programme that has the potential to reduce Rhino poaching drastically. Dubbed the “Rhisotope” Project, the ground-breaking initiative is centred on safely inserting radioactive material into rhino horns, creating an effective demand reduction and rhino protection tool.

The presence of radioactive material will make the horns less desirable to both poachers and end-users. Global Nuclear company Rosatom was the first to support the initiative between Wits University, top global nuclear scientists, researchers, South African rhino owners and leading international wildlife veterinarians. Rosatom provided seed funding and became a part of the international project.

South Africa is home to 90% of the world’s rhino population, and more than 9600 rhinos have been slaughtered in poaching attacks since 2010. The Rosatom Rhino Project is another boost to various initiatives launched to save the species from extinction over the years.

Professor Larkin sat down with us to discuss the project.

What does it all entail? And how will it work?
LARKIN: The idea is to find a way of devaluing the rhino horn by reducing demand for the horn. We have decided to make the horn slightly radioactive. If you think of the supply chain, from the poacher to the end-user, you have the people who are using rhino horn for traditional medicines or as a kind of display of wealth.

They show conspicuous consumption and the type of people who like to show off their wealth. So if you think about it, and you say to someone, ‘well, you know, there’s a good chance that if you grind up that rhino horn and put it into your glass of Johnnie Walker Blue Label, or whatever it is, you might be imbibing something that is radioactive’, I think people are going to say: ‘I don’t think we’ve kind of interested in that.’


If you make it slightly radioactive, it makes it far easier to detect the horn as it moves across international borders. That is because there are between 10 000 and 11,000 installed radiation portal monitors where cargo, suitcases and baggage are scanned across ports of entry. So, if you put a small amount of radioactive material into the horn, that will set off the detectors. And so that cargo will be seized.

And hopefully, along with the cargo being seized, the person who sent that cargo will also be arrested. And they will undoubtedly be arrested for, obviously, wildlife trafficking type problems. But also, there’s a good chance that they could leave themselves open to quite possibly terrorism charges because they are now in illegal possession of radioactive and nuclear material. And those can be some very serious charges, depending on where in the world that happens.

What is a radioactive isotope?


We have these types of material, which want to decay spontaneously because of the unstable configuration of the atom’s nucleus. Specific configurations spontaneously decay, giving off energy, and giving off different types of particles. We can track that energy using the appropriate detectors. These spontaneous disintegrations of certain types of nucleus are used in may different areas of science . We use it in the nuclear industry for powering power stations. We use it in the medical industry for diagnosis and things like that. So it’s a comprehensive science, like nuclear science.


Please explain how the radioactive isotope is inserted into the horn?
Well, we’re going to keep that bit quiet at the moment. We don’t want to kind of tell the poachers quite how we got to do it. Maybe in broad strokes, you put some radioactive material into the horn very similar to putting RFID chips and things like that into the horn. And then that way, we will choose a quantity of radioactive material that’s not going to harm the animal.

REPORTER What are the risks to the animals – how do you ensure the material does not pass into the animal?
The radioactive material is so small and won’t harm the animal or people who come across it. People are slightly scared of radioactive material. You can take a picture of these treated animals with cameras and be comfortable that you’re not going to get harmed or anything like that because the radioactive materials are so small. So it’s not going to harm someone who wants to come and see rhinos in the Kruger National Park or somewhere like that.

REPORTER: How will poachers know whether an animal has been treated?

LARKIN: We will put up signs at appropriate places in all the relevant languages. We will inform people that the animals have been treated.

REPORTER: What are your success indicators?

LARKIN: In terms of the trafficking itself. I’ll be honest with you, I would love to crush trafficking, you know, to the point where there is no trafficking, but I’ve got to be realistic. But if we could, I suppose we could almost call it a win if we could reduce the amount of poaching to the point that the number of animals born exceeds the numbers poached. We want to start seeing an increase in the population of the white rhino and the black rhino, particularly in places like the Kruger National Park, where the population has been decimated. In the last nine to 10 years, they’ve lost 70% of the rhinos, and are down to about 3000 animals. The losses will start to affect the ecosystem, tourism and all of these sorts of things.

We also want to have a big social impact. It’s not going to be an easy task to get community by in. but we are working with a couple of people who’ve done this sort of thing. People are beginning to understand that their livelihoods and the livelihoods of their families and children rely upon tourists coming to the area. We want people to buy into the fact that these animals are far more valuable to the local community, on four feet, living that they are being poached once off. You only got to look at how tourism in this country supports so many jobs.

How do you ensure the safety of Isotopes?

LARKIN: There are stringent rules and regulations in the control of importing, handling all of those sorts of things. It’s not going to be a free for all or anything like that. It’s always going to be very closely controlled. And you know, there are the appropriate regulators in place, who will act as Big Brother it to make sure that whatever is done is done in a proper and legally safe and secure manner.

REPORTER: How will you transport the isotopes?
LARKIN: We usually use vehicles, sometimes marked, sometimes unmarked. And obviously, the people handling them and the drivers all get appropriate training. In South Africa, we make and export lots of medical isotopes that go out to the country daily. We are one of the largest producers in the world of an isotope called technetium 99, which is used in the medical industry. That is exported on a daily basis.

REPORTER: This must be an expensive exercise…
LARKIN: Without a shadow of a doubt, but a life and the existence of rhinos is more expensive.