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

Is Air Travel Safe?

Aviation expert says despite tragic losses of Malaysian Airlines flights 370 and 17, industry experienced lowest fatality rate in recorded history last year More

Multimedia 100 Days Later, Nigerian Girls Still Held

Activists holding rallies in Nigeria and several other countries to mark 100th day of captivity for more than 200 schoolgirls being held by Boko Haram More

Chocolate Too Bitter? Swap Sugar for Mushrooms

US food technology company develops fermentation process using mushrooms to reduce bitterness in cocoa beans, believes it will cut sugar content in candy More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
US Carriers Suspend Travel to Israeli
X
Carolyn Presutti
July 23, 2014 1:21 AM
The United States is prohibiting American carriers from flying to Israel's airport in Tel Aviv for 24 hours, because of rising violence between Israel and Hamas militants. The action was announced on Tuesday, after a rocket fired by Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip landed near the airport. As VOA's Carolyn Presutti tells us, international officials soon may have to determine which combat zones are too dangerous for commercial flights.
Video

Video US Carriers Suspend Travel to Israel

The United States is prohibiting American carriers from flying to Israel's airport in Tel Aviv for 24 hours, because of rising violence between Israel and Hamas militants. The action was announced on Tuesday, after a rocket fired by Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip landed near the airport. As VOA's Carolyn Presutti tells us, international officials soon may have to determine which combat zones are too dangerous for commercial flights.
Video

Video NASA Focuses on Earth-Like Planets

For decades, looking for life elsewhere in the universe meant listening for signals that could be from distant civilizations. But recent breakthroughs in space technology refocused some of that effort toward finding planets that may harbor life, even in its primitive form. VOA’s George Putic reports on a recent panel discussion at NASA’s headquarters, in Washington.
Video

Video IAEA: Iran Turns its Enriched Uranium Into Less Harmful Form

Iran has converted its stockpiles of enriched uranium into a less dangerous form that is more difficult to use for nuclear weapons, according to the United Nations’ Atomic Energy Agency. The move complies with an interim deal reached with Western powers on Iran's nuclear program last year, in exchange for easing of sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.
Video

Video Relic of Saint Draws Catholics Worried About Immigration Issue

A Roman Catholic saint who is a figure of devotion for those crossing the border into the United States is attracting believers concerned about the plight of undocumented immigrants. Mike O'Sullivan reports from Los Angeles, where a relic of Saint Toribio has drawn thousands to local churches.
Video

Video US Awards Medal of Honor for Heroics in Bloodiest of Afghan Battles

U.S. combat troops are withdrawing from Afghanistan, on pace to leave the country by the end of this year. But on Monday, U.S. President Barack Obama took time to honor a soldier whose actions while under fire in Afghanistan earned him the Medal of Honor. VOA's Jeff Seldin has more from the Pentagon.
Video

Video Ukraine Rebels Surrender MH17 Black Boxes

After days of negotiations, a senior separatist leader handed over two black boxes from an airliner downed over eastern Ukraine to Malaysian experts early Tuesday. While on Monday, the U.N. Security Council unanimously demanded that armed groups controlling the crash site allow safe and unrestricted access to the wreckage.
Video

Video In Cambodia, HIV Diagnosis Brings Deadly Shame

Although HIV/AIDS is now a treatable condition, a positive diagnosis is still a life altering experience. In Cambodia, people living with HIV are often disowned by friends, family and the community. This humiliation can be unbearable. We bring you one Cambodian woman’s struggle to overcome a life tragedy and her own HIV positive diagnosis.
Video

Video Nature of Space Exploration Enters New Age

Forty-five years ago this month, the first humans walked on the moon. It was during an era of the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union. World politics have changed since then and -- as Elizabeth Lee reports -- so has the nature of space exploration.

AppleAndroid