Beware ivory poachers: Carbon left after nuclear bomb testing may have made it possible to track and date elephant tusks, the BBC reports
Illegally obtained ivory is funding civil wars, the BBC said, reporting that one recent United Nations-funded study said the number of poached elephants is at the highest in two decades.
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NPR reported that a pound of ivory is now worth more than $1,000
, which contributes to keeping the poaching numbers high.
A Utah University professor came up with the idea of dating and determining where ivory comes from by testing it for radiocarbon, which is absorbed by plant material that the elephants eat, NPR said. The amount of radiocarbon in the atmosphere decreased since nuclear testing stopped in the 1960s, so younger elephants have less of the chemical in their tusks.
The research was published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
More than half of Africa’s elephants were believed to have been killed in the 1980s for their ivory tusks, the BBC article said. Increased demand for ivory in China and Asian countries may be responsible for the increased poaching.
A Colorado State University professor who also worked on the research, George Wittemyer, told NPR that the dating will be effective in identifying when the elephant was killed. Poachers sometimes claim that the ivory they’re selling comes from tusks acquired before bans were put in place, and NPR reported that some even age the tusks by making them look old.
In addition to the radiocarbon dating, scientists also can take DNA from the tusks to determine what elephant population the tusk came from, NPR said.
Richard Ruggiero, who monitors African wildlife trade, told NPR that ivory poachers are today “well-organized, well-funded crime syndicates,” and hopefully the new scientific tools will make prosecutions easier and raise the risk for the organizations.
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