News / Science & Technology

Forensic Testing of Ivory Could Combat Elephant Poaching

A steamroller is used to crush seized elephant tusks during a ceremony at the Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources in Quezon city, northeast of Manila, Philippines, June 21, 2013.
A steamroller is used to crush seized elephant tusks during a ceremony at the Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources in Quezon city, northeast of Manila, Philippines, June 21, 2013.
Megan McGrath
The sweeping grasslands of the African savannah might not exist without elephants. They knock down so many trees that forests transform into plains, where other grazers and birds feed.  Elephants maintain the shape of the land, and without them, everything would change.  And for many, that would make the world a poorer place.

“There’s some connection between humans and elephants that would be a really sad thing to lose,” says Kevin Uno of Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University.

Forensic Testing of Ivory Could Combat Elephant Poaching
Forensic Testing of Ivory Could Combat Elephant Poachingi
|| 0:00:00
...
 
🔇
X

Uno warns that elephant extinction is a possibility this century, as poaching of African elephants is at an all-time high.  There are only about 400,000 left in the wild, and 30,000 are killed each year for their tusks.  “In a span of 15 to 20 years, we could lose our elephants,” the researcher said.

Elephant ivory is highly sought-after as a carving material, especially in China and Japan.  Trade in ivory was made illegal in 1989 under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).  Ivory that was harvested before the ban, however, is still legal to buy and sell.  This is a perplexing issue for anti-poaching efforts: how to tell the old, legal ivory from the new, illegal ivory?

An international team of scientists, including Dr. Uno, determined that the answer can be found with a test measuring the level of radioactive carbon in a piece of ivory.

Atmospheric radiocarbon has been at an especially high level since nuclear weapons testing by the United States and Soviet Union in the 1950s.  The radioactive element has been degrading ever since.  By matching the amount of radiocarbon in a tusk with the amount in the atmosphere at a given time, the researchers can tell when the tusk grew - and when the elephant was killed.

The team's findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  The researchers say they hope the test will allow investigators to distinguish legally-sold ivory from before the trade ban, from illegal ivory that was poached more recently.  This will presumably enable more effective enforcement of the ban on ivory trading, and disruption of poaching.

The technique can also be used to date horns and tusks from other animals, including rhinoceroses, which are at even worse risk of extinction due to poaching.

Kevin Uno says that enforcing the trade ban is only part of the battle to save elephants.  The ivory trade is completely driven by the demand for ivory, and he advocates efforts to educate buyers about the consequences of their actions.

“What we need to send,” said Uno, “is a very clear message that when you buy something that’s made of ivory, there’s an elephant that died for that.”

The Obama administration has announced an executive order to combat the illegal sale of endangered animals in Africa.  The order provides $10 million to benefit anti-poaching efforts throughout sub-Saharan Africa.

You May Like

Photogallery Obama Announces Plan to Send 3,000 Troops to Liberia in Ebola Fight

At US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Obama details troop deployment and other pieces of US plan More

China Muslims Work to Change Perceptions After Knife Attacks

Muslims in Kunming say that they condemn the violence, it is not a reflection of the true beliefs of their faith More

Humanitarian Aid, Equipment Blocked in Cameroon

Move is seen as a developing supply crisis in West Africa More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Enviropreneur Seeks to Save the Environment, Empower the Communityi
X
September 16, 2014 2:06 PM
Lorna Rutto, a former banker, is now an ‘enviropreneur’ - turning plastic waste into furniture and fences discusses the challenges she faces in Africa with raw materials and the environment.
Video

Video Enviropreneur Seeks to Save the Environment, Empower the Community

Lorna Rutto, a former banker, is now an ‘enviropreneur’ - turning plastic waste into furniture and fences discusses the challenges she faces in Africa with raw materials and the environment.
Video

Video West Trades Accusations Over Ransoms

As world leaders try to forge a common response to the threat posed by Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, there is simmering tension over differing policies on paying ransoms. In the past month, the jihadist group has beheaded two Americans and one Briton. Both countries refuse to pay ransom money. As Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London, there is uncertainty in the approach of some other European nations.
Video

Video Scotland Independence Bid Stokes Global Interest

The people of Scotland are preparing to vote on whether to become independent and break away from the rest of Britain, in a referendum being watched carefully in many other countries. Some see it as a risky experiment; while others hope a successful vote for independence might energize their own separatist demands. Foreign immigrants to Scotland have a front row seat for the vote. VOA’s Henry Ridgwell spoke to some of them in Edinburgh.
Video

Video Washington DC Mural Artists Help Beautify City

Like many cities, Washington has a graffiti problem. Buildings and homes, especially in low-income neighborhoods, are often targets of illegal artwork. But as we hear from VOA’s Julie Taboh, officials in the nation's capital have come up with an innovative program that uses the talents of local artists to beautify the city.
Video

Video US Muslim Leaders Condemn Islamic State

Leaders of America's Muslim community are condemning the violent extremism of the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria. The U.S. Muslim leaders say militants are exploiting their faith in a failed effort to justify violent extremism. VOA correspondent Meredith Buel reports.
Video

Video Americans' Reaction Mixed on Obama Strategy for Islamic State Militants

President Barack Obama’s televised speech on how the United States plans to “degrade and destroy” the group known as the Islamic State reached a prime-time audience of millions. And it came as Americans appear more willing to embrace a bolder, tougher approach to foreign policy. VOA producer Katherine Gypson and reporter Jeff Seldin have this report from Washington.
Video

Video Authorities Allege LA Fashion Industry-Cartel Ties

U.S. officials say they have broken up crime rings that funneled tens of millions of dollars from Mexican drug cartels through fashion businesses in Los Angeles. Mike O'Sullivan reports that authorities announced nine arrests, as 1,000 law enforcement agents fanned out through the city on Wednesday.
Video

Video Bedouin Woman Runs Successful Business in Palestinian City

A Bedouin woman is breaking social taboos by running a successful vacation resort in the Palestinian town of Jericho. Bedouins are a sub-group of Arabs known for their semi-nomadic lifestyle. Zlatica Hoke says the resort in the West Bank's Jordan Valley is a model of success for women in the region.


Carnage and mayhem are part of daily life in northern Nigeria, the result of a terror campaign by the Islamist group Boko Haram. Fears are growing that Nigeria’s government may not know how to counter it, and may be making things worse. More

AppleAndroid