Nuclear Bomb Tests Expose Illegal Ivory

If you see elephant ivory for sale, there's a good chance that the source animal was killed recently.

African elephant tusks often go from slaughter to sale in months, according to new research that finds 90 percent of all illegally traded ivory comes from recent kills.

Using a novel technique that dates animal remains, including tusks, by the amounts of a radioactive isotope left over from past nuclear tests, researchers were able to zero in on when elephants were killed for their ivory.

The idea that many tusks are illegally recycled from older stockpiles built up by corrupt governments is negated by the findings, reported in the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences. Instead, as many conservationists had feared, the evidence supports that widespread poaching is happening at a fast pace.

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Kevin Uno, a geochemist at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, told Seeker that the illegal ivory trade is largely driven by upper middle class individuals who view carved ivory as a status item.

"They wish to show it off in their homes," he said, adding that ivory shops in China employ craftspeople to supply the demand. Arguing that their materials come from older kills, such shops can often provide faulty documentation to stay in business. Testing the ivory is expensive, so there is little enforcement.

Uno and Thure Cerling of the University of Utah led a team that recently conducted the first large-scale age study of ivory. They analyzed 231 tusks from 14 major seizures made in nine nations from 2002–2014.

Back in 2013, Uno showed that small amounts of radioactive isotope carbon-14 left over from nuclear bomb tests in the 1950s and 1960s ended up in plants eaten by animals. Those traces could then be detected in the animals - including elephant tusks.

He applied the same technique to the 231 tusks, which came from seizures in Kenya, Thailand, Hong Kong, Malawi, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan and Togo.

The study showed that all but 10 of the tusks belonged to elephants that had been killed less than three years before the ivory was confiscated. Uno said some tusks even registered "zero" in the analysis, meaning that the source elephant was likely killed within days of its tusk "being thrown into the batch for transport and sale."

"There is no, or very little, old ivory in the illegal ivory trade, according to our research," Uno said.

George Wittemyer of Save the Elephants, Nairobi, Kenya and Colorado State University's Department of Fish Wildlife and Conservation Biology believes that the expansion of global illegal wildlife trafficking involves sophisticated criminal syndicates that sell to "key destination markets, namely China but also the United States, Vietnam and Thailand." Wittemyer wrote this in a statement published by Science and provided to Seeker by Uno.

Uno added that protecting elephants in Africa is challenging, due to the large areas that require monitoring, the dense vegetation that often exists in such regions, lack of very timely intelligence and other factors.

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A recent population survey funded by Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Paul Allen estimates that 375,000 African elephants exist in the wild, down by 144,000 since 2007. At the current rate of poaching, elephants could therefore go extinct in our lifetimes.

Uno and colleagues' study found that from 2011 to the present, it is taking longer for poachers to get their shipments out. The researchers suspect that it's getting harder for the illegal hunters to find forest elephants, making it more difficult for them to pull larger shipments together.

If elephant populations were to further drop or disappear altogether, the impact to ecosystems is expected to be catastrophic, given that elephants are primary agents of environmental change. Uno explained that as they travel long distances, they spread seeds along the way through their dung.

"Their piles of poop are like perfect fertilized bags," he said, adding that certain plant seeds are so large that they can only be consumed, and therefore redistributed in dung, by elephants.

"Plus, elephants have co-existed with us and our human ancestors for 6–7 million years," Uno continued. "Elephants likely played a key role in our evolution. It would be tragic if we caused the extinction of the very animals that helped give rise to us."

Photo: An elephant ivory seizure made in Malaysia, December 2012, weighing over 6.5 tons. Credit: Syarifah Khadiejah Syed Mohd Kamil, Malaysia Department of Wildlife and National Parks WATCH VIDEO: The U.S. Crushes a Ton of Illegal Ivory