Nuclear testing bomb-curve helps fight ivory poachers

Before elephants were recognized as endangered species, trinkets like these carved ebony elephants with tiny ivory tusks were common, and legal
CC BY 2.0 William Warby

If anything good came from nuclear bomb testing, this would be it.

U.S. and Soviet weapons trials between 1952 and 1962 caused a peak of the Carbon isotope known as C14 in the atmosphere in 1960, when C14 levels were approximately doubled. Levels of C14 have been dropping steadily since that time, creating a pattern known as the "bomb-curve".

A team from the University of Utah has now demonstrated a cheap and effective method for carbon-dating ivory based on the bomb-curve. Bomb-curve carbon dating relies on small samples -- a portion about the size of a grain of salt suffices. This offers a real advantage when the test subject may be either illegally poached contraband or a finely carved masterpiece handed down from a time when nature's bounty seemed unlimited.

The bomb-curve carbon dating is also cheap, about $500 per test, a benefit to the organizations fighting poachers with restricted fiscal resources. It is also cheap enough that the standard use of this test could be embraced by ethical traders in historic ivory.

Cliff/CC BY 2.0
Artistic masterpieces in carved ivory, pre-dating ivory bans, make it difficult to rein in collectors who can be fooled into thinking they are acquiring legal pieces

Before elephants and other species used as ivory sources were recognized as endangered, trinkets like the carved ebony elephants with tiny ivory tusks (pictured at top) were common, and legal. Humans have carved ivory since prehistoric times, and ivory carvings offer archeologists a continuous historical record because the ivory has no recycled value like metal or stone carvings that were often destroyed or re-purposed.

This history of legal ivory trade presents a great dilemma in stopping modern ivory poachers. Up until now, proving the provenance of ivory and ivory articles has been outside of the budgets of organizations policing illegal poaching activity in failing attempts to stop the elephant slaughter.

Credit: Michelle Gadd/USFWS/CC BY 2.0
A single elephant at a watering hole where once thousands roamed.

The number of poor people seeking to turn a local resource into profit as well as the use of ivory to fund wars makes ivory poaching difficult to stop. Leading experts fighting ivory poaching recognize that success lies in stopping demand as much as it rests on seizing large shipments of illegal ivory.

So the best outcome of this new test may lie in the creation of indisputable certificates of legitimacy for historic ivory pieces, which make the difference between legal and illegal trade transparent for buyers. Although a criminal element will always seek this treasured material, a lot of demand could dry up based on this new test.

The study is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, PNAS.

Tags: Africa | Animals | Conservation | Endangered Species

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