Rhinos are in trouble. They need to be guarded by armed rangers around the clock. Poachers are on the prowl in search of their valuable horns, but protecting them seems to be becoming more and more difficult. And some rhinos can’t even feel safe with their protectors anymore.
Time is ticking for their species, and radical measures are being applied to protect them. But there is a shimmer of light at the end of a very dark tunnel. This is a story about human greed, corruption, and the insane value of something with no use at all. But it’s also about hope and the people who relentlessly dedicate their lives to protecting wild animals in their natural habitats.
It might be that, of all things, nuclear science and radioactive materials will be the ones to safeguard these iconic gentle giants. Over the last decade, the rhino horn trade has downright exploded on the global wildlife market, driving unprecedented levels of poaching across Africa and Asia and sending rhino populations into a crisis. The country most affected by this development is the one that’s home to the largest population of rhinos left on Earth: South Africa. The world-famous Kruger National Park reported that its rhino numbers had dropped by 70% during the past decade from over 10,000 in 2010 to just 4000 today(2022), primarily because of poaching.
The increase in poaching activity has caught the country surprisingly unprepared as the wildlife population in its national parks was formerly thought to be secure and stable. In the past, conservation efforts were mainly focused on guarding and protecting animals in their habitats.
However, extensive long-term anti-poaching activities and habitat protection resulted in a cat and mouse game with organized crime, which exhausted conservation resources. To tackle the problem, South Africa needs to take the bull, or rather the rhino, by its horns. The demand for rhino horn comes mainly from China, and Southeast Asia, where it’s made into ornamental carvings and used in traditional medicine. Despite a lack of any scientific evidence to support this belief, in fact, there is no biological difference between rhino horns and human fingernails apart from their shape.
Nevertheless, rhino horn is worth more than its weight in gold, which has turned it into a status symbol in several Asian countries and further accelerated demand. On the black market, rhino horn can fetch prices as high as $65,000 per kilogram.
This means that a single three-kilogram horn promises up to $200,000 for the trader. In theory, international trade of this coveted wildlife product is illegal, but South Africa re-implemented its domestic rhino horn market in 2017.
But more on that later. The core problem is the exceptionally high price of rhino horn fetches on the black market. The higher the value attributed to a product, the higher the incentive to bypass rules around trading it, which undermines the legal structure at its root. All regulations are circumvented by a booming illegal trade.
While international law enforcement battles against it, increasingly organized traffickers simply shift their supply routes for poached horns. Meanwhile, on the ground, South African national parks struggle with growing corruption among the rangers. Revenues are just far too tempting and lucrative, opening the doors for poaching syndicates to infiltrate the ranks of the park’s rhino protectors. For those on the front line, protecting rhinos is no longer a conservation challenge, but a war.
One that involves lots of cash and bribery, just like the war on drugs. This is a race against time. Kruger National Park staff stated that rhinos would likely be poached out of the park in only a few years if the current trend continues.
In recent years, a rather radical but effective method has been developed and applied to save as many rhinos as fast as possible: De-horning.
Livestock dehorning is the process of removing the horns from animals. This is typically done for two reasons: to prevent injuries to the animal or to other animals, and to make the animal easier to handle. Dehorning is a controversial practice, with some people arguing that it is cruel and unnecessary, while others claim that it is necessary for the safety of both the animals and the people who work with them.
In principle, cutting off a rhino’s horn not too close to its roots is painless for the animal, and it will actually grow back again. A de-horned rhino in the wild is of no value to poachers, but it still begs the question of what should be done with the cut-off horns. This question is particularly relevant considering the fact that 6200 – so roughly half – of the country’s rhinos are in private hands.
The biggest player in the game is John Hume, the so-called “Rhino King”. He alone keeps more than a thousand rhinos on his breeding farm southeast of Johannesburg.
Where he has built up a huge stockpile of rhino horns. He and other rhino owners put pressure on the government to let them monetize their stock, which eventually led to the domestic trade being legalized. These horns are now sold through auctions, where the Rhino King has become the dominant figure in the business.
Each week, his staff trims the horns of ten to 15 rhinos, producing more than two kilograms of horn per rhino every year.
But the problem that comes with this sort of rhino horn production is that it once again floods the market with new products – even if they are legal. This brings us back to square one, a market with high demand that’s so lucrative it continues to attract all sorts of criminal activity. For the problem to be solved at its core, we have to get to a point where the value projected onto something that is actually completely useless for humanity is removed. To save the rhino population in Africa, researchers are working on a remarkable new approach, combining nuclear technology with environmental conservation.
The Rhisotope Project’s concept is to inject a small number of radioactive isotopes into rhino’s horns. This has two potential effects, the first being that the rhino horn will be devalued in the eyes of the end user, making it less desirable to buyers in the Far East. The second vital effect is traceability: Using radioactive markers to make smuggled horns detectable along global trading routes. Radiation monitors are already installed at all major border posts, ports, harbors, and airports worldwide.
With customs and border agents trained and equipped to use them. They can easily detect the markers making it much easier for customs or police to intercept a rhino horn.
A team of scientists from South Africa, Australia, the USA, and Russia, funded by Russia’s nuclear agency, first used non-radioactive stable isotopes to show that the particles would not move from the animal’s horn into its body. In order to prove this, rhinos Igor and Denver were chosen to have a sample of stable isotopes introduced into their horns.
The two animals were isolated in a separate camp where they were closely observed. And it worked! With the first major milestone achieved, the project is now moving into its second stage. A group of ten to 15 animals will be selected to have actual radiological doses inserted into their horns. This phase could take another six months to a year for researchers to independently verify the results of the pilot project.
The goal is to develop an affordable, safe and easily applicable method to create long lasting, detectable horn markers that cause zero harm to any animals themselves. This project could provide rhinos with a safe and natural way of enjoying life without regularly cutting off an emblematic body part or needing to guard and monitor individual animals 24/7.
It also holds the possibility of effectively reducing global demand for rhino horn, especially among end consumers which is crucial for future success. As such, radioactive horns can play a fundamental role in protecting African rhinos and biodiversity in general.
Well-established nuclear science has the potential to mark an important shift in the conservation and protection of the rhinoceros. And who knows, maybe other iconic animals on the brink of extinction might follow. Quite disturbing that something as simple as our fingernails can push an entire species to the brink of extinction. The survival of the white rhino in South Africa is particularly important since it’s vital for the amazing resurrection project of its northern relative.