It seems improbable, but Cold War nuclear testing could provide a way to help save elephants.
Scientists have found that carbon left in the atmosphere from above-ground thermonuclear weapons testing undertaken from 1952 – 1962 could help track poached ivory by making it easier to figure out when the ivory was acquired.
The ban on international trading ivory was created in 1989 as the world was, slowly and tardily, realizing that more than half of the population of Africa’s elephants had been killed by poachers. Ivory taken from elephants before the ban can still be sold, but anything after that is illegal.
Currently, scientists can use a DNA test to determine where a piece of ivory is from, but it is not easy to figure out when a piece was acquired and an elephant killed. By being able to precisely pinpoint when ivory was acquired, conservationists could have a powerful tool to help them to enforce the ivory ban.
As a result of aboveground nuclear weapons testing from 1952 until 1962, the level of radioactive isotopes in the atmosphere doubled. It then fell when testing was restricted underground in 1963. While the levels of radiocarbon have declined, plants continue to absorb them. Radiocarbon then enters the food chain when animals including elephants eat them.
Scientists have found that they can use this so-called “bomb-curve” dating to determine when an elephant died or was killed within a year. In contrast, traditional radiocarbon dating — such as is used to determine the age of an artifact from an archaeological site established some 20,000 years ago — would only be able to pick up a very minute amount of decay. Because the nuclear testing doubled the amount of concentration of carbon, it is therefore much more detectable.
Kevin Uno, a postdoctoral researcher at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and a leader of the study, notes that the cost of the “bomb-curve” dating method for testing ivory is affordable, therefore making the test more likely to be used as governments and conservationists fight to save elephants.
During his visit to Africa this past week, President Obama announced a new anti wildlife trafficking initiative that establishes a presidential taskforce on wildlife trafficking. It also provides $10 million in support funding for counter-poaching efforts by training police officers and park rangers in Tanzania, South Africa, Kenya and other countries.
The President’s initiative comes not a moment too late. Funds from trafficking poached ivory is being used to fund civil conflicts in Africa. A new test for determining the date of ivory is a small step in stopping poachers. But with the number of elephants savagely killed for their tusks having reached an all-time high in the past two decades, and with demand for ivory in Asia — in China and Vietnam, where it sells for as much as $1,300 a pound — only growing, it is a welcome one.
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