Life is often stranger than fiction – but sometimes it is more like comic books. And while not exactly the kind of epic, spandex-clad clash between good and evil that has kept generations of kids loyal to DC and Marvel superheroes, there are certainly good guys and bad guys in this tale.
The good guys are South African scientists, who have started working toward one day injecting radioactive material into the horns of rhinoceroses. If that doesn’t sound heroic, bear in mind their methods are an unusual bid to save the species from poachers.
And if your first thought was, ‘Oh right, just like when Peter Parker is bitten by the radioactive spider and transforms into Spider-Man’, well, not quite.
Despite an enduring tendency for people to panic at the mention of “radioactive material”, Dr Mitra Safavi-Naeini, the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology’s (ANSTO) senior physicist and research leader, human health, said understanding the experiment and the potential future use of such material is made easier by going back to basics.
“Almost everything in the world around us is made of tiny things called atoms. Whether it is the air you breathe, the ground you’re standing on, or your own body, the atoms are the same, just arranged in different ways,” Dr Safavi-Naeini said.
“Sometimes, those atoms are a bit too excited and have too much energy. Just like when your parents tell you to run around outside to burn off that extra energy. That is what radiation is: atoms trying to get rid of their extra energy and they let it out into the Universe all around them. We say that those atoms are radioactive.”
Dr Safavi-Naeini added that the surprising thing is that most radiation is not actually dangerous; rather, it is one of the most important things we need in creating life.
“When you’re sitting in your classroom, you’re surrounded by radiation: you eat some radioactive atoms every time you have a banana,” she said. “But sometimes, just like chips or chocolate, too much of something can be bad, and your body can get really sick if you are exposed to too much radiation or the wrong type of radiation.”
There are even times when too much radiation can be a good thing, like when we are trying to fight cancer.
“In that case, doctors use too much radiation to destroy cancer cells, and by focusing it only on these cancer cells – just like you do with light and a magnifying glass – we leave the surrounding healthy cells untouched,” Dr Safavi-Naeini said.
Indeed, James Larkin, a professor at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg and an expert in radiation protection, said the stable isotopes* used on the rhinos were harmless and that he “doesn’t want to kill anyone” with the infusion.
“We just want to use the natural reticence* towards radioactive material to decrease demand for rhino horn and also make it easier to track.
“Because of the structure of the horn, we are not expecting to see any movement into the animals’ bodies,” Prof Larkin said.
And while the prospect of using radioactive material sounds like a radical measure, it is in response to an extremely serious problem – which brings us to the bad guys.
Poachers* have killed two-thirds of South Africa’s biggest concentration of rhinos, in Kruger National Park, over the past decade. In 2014 alone, 1215 South African rhinos fell prey to poachers. Millions of dollars are spent each year on protecting the animals, with limited success: last year 394 deaths were recorded.
Rhino horns are highly sought after in Asia’s illegal markets, selling for up to $100,000 a kilogram.
The big question now is whether or not the rhinos will suffer any pain or experience adverse side effects as a result of injecting such material into their horns.
“This is what scientists are trying to work out with a lot of testing,” said ANSTO Beamline veterinary scientist Dr Mitzi Klein. “The most important thing is to protect the rhino and the environment around them, and not hurt the rhino one bit.”
Dr Guy Castley, Griffith University senior lecturer, School of Environment and Science, said that any injection into the horn itself won’t hurt because the horns are made up of a material called keratin that is identical to human fingernails, toenails, and hair.
“This horn itself does not have any nerves or blood vessels inside it and also grows just like our own hair and nails. So it is not likely to cause the rhino any discomfort or pain,” he said.
Dr Castley stressed that it is too early to say if radioactive material will be used and ANSTO’s Dr Klein agreed that radiation won’t come near any rhino until they discover a way to put the radiation safely in the horn “ … so that it does not spread to the body, rub off on anything out in the wild, or hurt anything in the environment.”
“Rhinos are an endangered species that we need to protect, because we’re in danger of losing them forever. If we can find a way to safely put radiation in the horns, it could end poaching, because it would no longer be safe for people to use horns to make medicine,” she said.
Thousands of existing sensors along international borders could also be used to pick up even a tiny quantity of radioactive material in the horns, making it harder for poachers to export their illicit goods.
“Every airport and shipping terminal has radiation detectors – there is no way to sneak the horns in and out of countries because poachers would get caught,” Dr Klein said.
So that’s how the bad guys might find themselves arrested and the rhinos might get justice – just don’t expect to see one scaling New York high-rises any time soon. The scientists will leave that one to Spider-Man.
The Centre for Medical Radiation Physics at the University of Wollongong took the Kids News 50 words or less challenge:
What is radioactive material?
A material that is naturally decaying by releasing particles and/or radiation.
Why and when is it dangerous?
The particles and radiation can sometimes be absorbed by our bodies and if we absorb too many of these particles/radiation there can be harmful effects on the human body (from sunburn to cancer).
Will it hurt the rhinos to have it in their horns?
Not if the horns are like our fingernails or hair and the particles released don’t travel very far.
What side effects might there be?
None if the radioactive material stays in the horn and the particles released don’t travel very far.
Why is the perception by poachers that anything ‘radioactive’ is dangerous thought to be a promising deterrent?
Poached horns will be able to be traced and identified, even if made into other items, using special particle or radiation detectors like the ones being developed at the Centre for Medical Radiation Physics at the University of Wollongong.
- isotopes: two or more types of atoms with the same number and position in the periodic table
- reticence: reluctance, reservation
- poachers: someone who illegally captures and kills animals
- What is radiation, according to ANSTO’s Dr Safavi-Naeini?
- What proportion of rhinos have been killed in Kruger National Park in South Africa in the last ten years?
- How many rhinos were lost in 2014 alone?
- What have airports and shipping terminals got to do with the experiment?
- How much can rhino horns fetch on the Asian black market?
LISTEN TO THIS STORY
1. Did you know?
Create a “Did you know?” poster about rhinoceroses that contains five shocking facts about the species that you think will make other people stop and take notice of their plight. You can use information from the story or that you have found from other sources.
Time: allow 45 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English
Radioactive Rhinos could make an entertaining TV show, similar to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Write them a theme song or draw the characters.
Time: allow 20 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English; the Arts
Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s Super Rhino!
Now, we know that this scientific experiment is a very serious effort to save the species, but a rhino superhero sounds pretty amazing too. A cross between Superman and The Thing from Fantastic Four.
Write a short narrative imagining that the experiments injecting the radioactive material into the rhino horn do in fact cause a mutation, turning the test rhinos into talking superheroes. What would their superpowers be? What would their first heroic act for humanity be?
Use your VCOP skills to add voice to your writing and capture the audience’s attention.