NewsShining horn

Shining horn

In order to curb the illegal trade in rhinoceros horns, researchers want to place radioactive mini-spheres in them. These should be recognized by detectors at border crossings.

South Africa’s conservationists are arming. After the plan of sawing off the horns of rhinoceroses to deter poaching or even vaccinating them with arsenic did not have the desired effect, researchers are now looking to fight the fight in a nuclear way: They want to implant a pinhead-sized radioactive globule in the nasal process of the pachyderms to help smugglers and to be able to stop smugglers crossing borders. In this way, “a whole army” of international border guards could be involved in the fight against the illegal rhino trade, said James Larkin, professor at the Witwatersrand University of Johannesburg: “We want to use the tools that are used in defense of international terror. “

The idea came to the director of the “Department for Radiation and Health Physics” at his university two and a half years ago at lunch – and after he had seen enough “terrible pictures” of “mutilated rhinos” on television. The scientist works closely with the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna – especially in preventing radioactive terrorist attacks. Detectors play a key role here, around 11,000 of which are found in ports, airports or at national borders around the world: They detect even the smallest amounts of radioactivity without having to open baggage or search people. “It suddenly became clear to me that we could also use this in the fight against poaching.”

The horn of rhinoceroses is one of the most precious objects in the world. On the black market, prices of up to 50,000 euros per kilogram are paid for this. In Southeast Asia, the horn made of pressed hair (kerotene) is said to have healing powers against cancer, rheumatism or impotence. It is considered a noble gift and a sign of prosperity. Since 2010, more than 10,000 rhinos have been poached in southern Africa. Their population, which is estimated at around 20,000 specimens, is acutely endangered. 90 percent of all white and black rhinos live in South Africa.

Those in charge of the wildlife parks on the Cape of Good Hope have started cutting off rhinos’ horns. But even then they are still killed by poachers who break their horn stump out of their bodies. In addition, polled rhinos make a “sad impression” on travelers, Larkin knows: “As if instead of the ‘Big Five’ (elephants, lions, leopards, buffalo and rhinos) you can only see ‘Big 4,5’.” That too The idea of injecting arsenic into the horns as a deterrent turned out to be largely ineffective, along with moral concerns, because the poison does not spread all over the horn.

A trait that Larkin benefits from. The first task was to find out whether traces of the radioactive globule would migrate to other parts of the rhinos’ body. A fear that turned out to be irrelevant after a six-month field test with Igor and Denver in a private South African zoo. Initially, only non-radiating isotopes were planted in the horn of the two pachyderms. Tests on the blood and dung showed that they had not spread into Igor and Denver’s bodies. The first review of the “Rhisotope Project”, in which Larkin involved not only several conservationists, but also the University of the US state of Colorado, the Australian nuclear organization Ansto and the Russian state nuclear energy company Rosatom.

Over the next six months, computer simulations and models of rhino heads will be used to determine how the radiation from the pinhead-sized globule affects the rhino’s body – and how it should ideally be dosed. Neither uranium nor plutonium should be planted in the pachyderms – rather a steel ball that was previously bombarded with neutrons. This can even be done in Pelindaba, the seat of the South African Atomic Energy Society. The “purely theoretical” results of the second research stage should be known by April next year: After that, it will go into the horns of 15 rhinoceroses – if South Africa gives the go-ahead.

If all goes well, there will be no limit to nuclear armament. The radiant globules could easily be implanted in elephant tusks, in the scales of pangolins or even in Cycas plants, enthuses Larkin. All natural products that bring in astronomical sums on the black market.

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