Carbon Dating uses Nuclear Tests to Track Illegal Ivory

16 July 2009

In a startling development, scientists are using the fallout from nuclear tests to determine whether  ivory is illegal or not. Selling ivory from an elephant that died before 1947 is not illegal, but until now it was impossible to determine this precisely and criminals have become adept at aging more recent ivory to simulate pre-1947 material.

During the nuclear explosions of the 1950s extra carbon-14 was released into the atmosphere.  Small amounts are in every living thing, and its decay rate is known, and can be measured against ordinary carbon, which does not decay.  However the nuclear tests of the 1950 released more, and this can be detected in bones and ivory, which proves that the animal was alive after the 1950s. The spike of carbon after the ivory is analysed is quite unique if it was post-1950s.  This amazing scientific technique has been used in a court case where a woman was acquitted of dealing in illegal ivory. The forensic technique was not challenged by her defence.  This will mean that there will be less demand for ivory and fewer elephants killed if the middlemen who deal in this expensive item will not be able to claim that it was legal. "If we find that the level of carbon-14 is enriched, then we know that elephant was alive in the nuclear era and therefore the ivory is illegal." Professor Gordon Cook, of the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre, who dated the ivory in this case.

Caption:  Poached Ivory

TRACE, an international collaboration of campaigners, enforcement agencies and forensic scientists set up in 2006, believes the technique can be used successfully in future against illegal wildlife trading like that in tiger body parts, rhino horn and scrimshaw.

"We're now able to fully enforce the wildlife trade legislation. It opens the door for police to go after people trading illegally in ivory." said Dr. Ross McEwing of TRACE.

This technique may also be used to date human remains and so will become useful to forensic scientists for dating the remians of victims, including those of crimes against humanity.


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