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Believe it or not: How the cold war can help fight elephant poaching

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
July 2nd, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Scientists have developed a new weapon to aid in the international fight against ivory poaching. Using carbon-14 dating, they can now determine the year of an elephant's death, and thus the legal status of its ivory on the international market. The dating is a product of Cold War-era nuclear testing.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - Scientists have developed a new method of determining when an ivory tusk was poached, to within a year. That key measurement will now cheaply enable law enforcement officials to determine if ivory is being legally bought and sold, or if it has been recently poached.

Ivory harvested before 1989 is legal for trade. Any ivory taken after that date is contraband and anyone caught possessing it is subject to prosecution. However, determining the age of the ivory has been virtually impossible, until now.

Scientists have developed a method to date the ivory to within one year of its acquisition based on carbon-14 dating and they have the Cold War to thank.

During the Cold War, both the United States and Soviet Union exploded hundreds of atomic devices which filled the atmosphere with radioactive isotopes. The level of these isotopes in the atmosphere fluctuated over the years in a manner that has been charted.

Those isotopes made their way into the soil and into plants. As elephants consumed those plants, the isotopes ended up in their ivory. By dating the ivory found at the base of a tusk, scientists can now tell to within one year when an elephant died.

The method uses carbon-14 dating which is cheap and powerful. It will now allow law enforcement officials to date ivory to determine if it really is pre-1989 ivory, or if it is illegally poached ivory. This will lead to better prosecution of poachers and sellers of illegal ivory.

Conservationists are keen to protect elephants. Almost 100 elephants are being poached every day, a rate that will lead to their extinction before the end of the century. Their ivory is prized, particularly in China, where ivory is considered a status symbol. The rising wealth of the middle-class in that country is fueling demand.

A pound of ivory fetches at least $1,200 or more.

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