Nuclear bomb testing a breakthrough in the fight against illegal ivory trading

Illegally poached ivory may be able to be tracked using nuclear bomb testing, new sources show. By testing the level of atmospheric carbon left over from nuclear bomb testing, scientists may be able to use the results to date elephant tusks and rhinoceros horns in order to determine whether they have been poached and trafficked illegally.

These findings, published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA (PNAS) last month, may make it much easier to enforce the ivory ban.

An international ban on ivory trading was applied in 1989, after the 1980s played host to the worst ivory poaching in recent history, a decade during which over half of Africa’s elephants were slaughtered for their tusks. Since the ban, the demand for ivory decreased markedly as the threat of extinction of these animals became known to the public.

In recent years, however, conservationists have become increasingly concerned about the growing demand for ivory and for rhinoceros horns, trends which are particularly prevalent in China and other Asian countries, where powdered rhinoceros horn is thought to hold medicinal properties.

It is often difficult to tell which of the tusks and horns amassed by world governments across the decades were poached illegally after the ban had come into play, and whether this is being illegally traded back into the black market. Recent research by scientists working with nuclear bomb testing have devised a manner of dating this ivory and horn to determine which of it pre-dates the trade ban and which has been traded illegally since 1989.

During the Cold War, extensive nuclear weapons testing by participant countries caused the amount of radioactive carbon in the atmosphere to almost double in volume. After 1962, such testing was restricted to underground locations, resulting in a steady decrease in the amount of radiocarbon in the air. These changing levels of radiocarbon are known as the ‘bomb-curve’.

Radioactive carbon is absorbed by the plants and animals with which it comes into contact, making it possible to test samples of animal tissue to reveal the concentration of radioactive carbon within. Using such tests, scientists can accurately determine the year in which the animal died, a step up in accuracy from the traditional dating techniques which rely upon the loss of radiocarbon over time, rather than its present concentration levels. Whilst past techniques could decipher only a tiny, almost imperceptible amount of decay, these new techniques based on nuclear bomb testing are able to pinpoint the date of the animal’s death to an astonishingly accurate level.

Combined with DNA testing, scientists are able to accurately describe both the animal’s region of origin and the date it died. These two factors are important in the fight against illegal ivory and horn poaching and trading, allowing scientists and conservationists to pinpoint the source of the ivory, and when it was initially obtained and traded.

Funding for anti-poaching organisations is somewhat limited, so the ability to determine whether a stockpile of ivory was illegally poached, and how recently, conservationists may direct the limited funding directly to ivory poaching hotspots where animals are increasingly at risk.

Nuclear bomb testing is not limited to the dating of ivory. The technique has wider implications for crime forensics, as it could be used in the future to date human bones, as well as in the art world, used to detect art forgeries.

Sources include BBC and The Guardian

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