July 3, 2013
Nuclear Tests Help Fight Illegal Ivory Trade

Turns out nuclear weapons might have an upside after all. Scientists have discovered that nuclear tests conducted years ago may have left traceable radiocarbon levels in ivory.

Why is this a big deal? Governments worldwide have been trying to crack down on the illicit ivory trade as well as the poaching of elephants that goes with it. An international ban on the ivory trade in 1989 followed a period of frequent poaching of African elephants.

The excessive poaching is estimated to have wiped out over half of the elephant population on the continent. According to the BBC, the UN has reported on current elephant poaching practices, which are now at a two-decade high.

One of the worst offenses in recent times was the discovery in January of 11 elephants in Kenya who had been slaughtered and their ivory tusks hacked off crudely with machetes.

The renewed slaughter of African elephants comes with an increasing demand for ivory in Asia. It's also commonly used as a currency on the black market, frequently among warlords and guerrillas.

Researchers at the University of Utah, however, have developed a new method of measuring when an animal lived and when it was killed. And they believe it might help to combat the growing ivory market.

Radioactive carbon-14, they've found, saturates animals' tusks and teeth. This can be measured, according to Business Standard, and can be used to detect illegal ivory. Using a "bomb curve," the sharp peak found in radioactive carbon-14 levels worldwide, this dating can be done.

The high rise in the radioactive particles is because of the frequent open-air nuclear tests conducted by the United States in Nevada and by Russia in Siberia. Most of these tests were performed between 1952 and 1962, the height of the Cold War.

Hopes are high that this new easy, inexpensive method of testing ivory with nuclear bomb test radiation will curb the booming illicit ivory market and rise in African elephant poaching.

[Image via photo credit: Arno Meintjes Wildlife via photopin cc]