Cold War Nuclear Fallout Could Put Elephant Ivory Poachers Behind Bars [REPORT]

By Philip Ross on July 1, 2013 5:22 PM EDT

elephant ivory
Elephant populations in Africa have plummeted over the years, due in large part to the illegal ivory trade. Confiscated elephant ivory tusks are pictured on the floor of the rescue center at the Ninoy Aquino Parks and Wildlife center in Manila, Philippines, on June 14, 2013. (Photo: Reuters)

Scientists are now using Cold War nuclear fallout -- the result of atomic bomb tests in the 1950s and 1960s -- to fight elephant poachers and help curb the illegal global trade in ivory. How does that work? In short, scientists measure radioactive isotopes in traded tusks to finger the age of the ivory to within four to 16 months, and then determine whether or not that tusk was traded illegally based on when it was collected.

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It sounds a bit convoluted, but the process is relatively straightforward.

According to a United Nations report, about 17,000 elephants worldwide were killed for their ivory in 2011. Ivory, popular in China and much of East Asia, can sell for as much as $1,300 a pound.

"[There is] clear evidence that adequate human and financial resources, the sharing of know-how, raising public awareness in consumer countries, and strong law enforcement must all be in place if we are to curb the disturbing rise in poaching and illegal trade," John Scanlon, Secretary-General of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, said in March.

One of the tasks that has made stopping the illegal ivory trade so difficult has been determining legal ivory from poached ivory. Ivory that was collected before 1989, the year most countries banned the sale of ivory in an effort to halt the mass slaughter of elephants worldwide, is still legal to trade. Ivory collected after that year, is not.

The Los Angeles Times reports that when nuclear bombs were detonated above ground from the late 1940s to early 1960s, they created faint traces of radioactivity that have worked their way up the food chain. Over time, the radioactive material, which was initially stored in soil, moved to plants, then to large herbivores like elephants. By measuring these levels in ivory, a technique known as bomb-curve dating, authorities can trace a tusks origin. The results of this breakthrough research, published today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, could have serious implications for poachers. From Los Angeles Times:

The study's publication Monday could have important legal ramifications. Criminal cases have come to rely on the "Daubert standard," a set of practices on the admissibility of expert testimony derived from a 1993 lawsuit, Daubert vs. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals. In part, it holds that scientific knowledge must be soundly based on scientific method, often through publication in a reputable, peer-reviewed journal.

"I don't necessarily think this will save the elephants, but it's a critical tool to fight poaching of elephants," Kevin Uno, a researcher at Columbia University in New York and co-author of a study detailing the technique, told Live Science.

In 1979, there were approximately 1.3 million elephants living in Africa. By 2007, that number had shrunk to around 500,000, due largely to poaching. According to National Geographic, poaching peaked in 2011 -- hitting its highest level in a decade. At least 50 percent of all reported elephant deaths in every region of Africa were from illegal kills. In one region, the percentage of elephant deaths in 2011 from poaching was as high as 90 percent.

IScience Times reported earlier this year that the dramatic decline in the African elephant population is a result of a rise in demand for ivory in East Asia, as well as poverty in sub-Saharan Africa. Because of increased human density, a boom in infrastructure such as roads and highways, and government corruption, African elephants cover just a quarter of the land area that they use to. Researchers discovered earlier in March that a third of the land where elephants once thrived 10 years ago has now become dangerous, as poachers have better access to remote elephant populations through roads meant for logging.

Most countries agreed to ban the international trade of ivory in 1989. Over the 22-year period between 1989 and 2011, authorities seized roughly 347,200 pounds of ivory from the 10 biggest importers of illegal ivory. China topped the list as the country with the most ivory seizures, followed by Thailand, Hong Kong and Taiwan. China's ivory contraband weighed in at 90,600 pounds.

Read more from iScience Times:

Elephant Tramples Poacher To Death: What Happened To Solomon Manjoro? [VIDEO]

28 Elephants Killed; AK-47 Wielding Poachers Raid Park In Cameroon

62 Percent Of African Forest Elephants Killed In Last 10 Years: Study

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