Carbon from Nuclear Bombs Helps Catch Ivory Poachers


Elephant poaching for their ivory tusks has increased to its highest rate in over two decades, but the good news is that atmospheric carbon left over from bomb testing could help scientists track the poached ivory and catch ivory poachers, according to new research.

Nuclear bomb tests have changed the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. This change can be used to date when elephant tusks were taken, and to trace poached ivory.

This is important, both to rein in the amount of elephant poaching that’s going on, and because the trafficking of poached ivory is being increasingly used to fund civil wars.

Too many elephants have been slaughtered for their ivory. Last January, an entire family of 11 elephants was killed in Kenya. Machetes were used to hack off their tusks.

Who is still buying elephant ivory?

The growing demand for ivory in China and other Asian countries is responsible for a huge increase in the number of elephants being poached.

Traditional radio carbon dating is useful for determining the age of fossils and ancient relics. It relies on determining the ages of items through measuring the amount of carbon-14 (C14) in them.  By measuring the amount of C14 in the bones of animals like dinosaurs, scientists can determine the time period when the animal lived and dead.

Remains from after the Cold War contain higher levels of C14 due to the nuclear bombs that were tested. This increase in carbon can be used to date herbivore samples, such as elephants, which was done by researchers who  matched the samples to corresponding points on the bomb-curve.

Sadly, in the 1980s more than half of  Africa’s elephants are thought to have been wiped out by poachers. The eventual result was an international  ban on trading ivory in 1989. The global demand for ivory lessened as public awareness of the threat of the of the extinction of increased.

Many governments have huge stockpiles of ivory, and it is often unclear when this ivory was acquired and whether or not some of it is leaking into the illegal market.

Scientists have found that radioactive carbon in the atmosphere emitted during the Cold War bomb tests will make it easier to distinguish between illegal ivory and that which was acquired before the trade ban.

During nuclear weapons tests from 1952 to 1962, which steadily dropped after tests were restricted to underground. This has been dubbed “the bomb-curve”.

The levels of radioactive carbon have declined since the Cold War era, but as they are still absorbed by plants, they enter the food chain and are then measurable in plant and animal tissues.

According to lead author Kevin Uno from Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, US,  the concentration of radiocarbon found in tiny samples of animal tissue can accurately determine the year of an animals death, from 1955 until today

“This is different to the traditional dating technique which takes advantage of the loss of radiocarbon through time,” Uno stated.

Nuclear bombs and radiation are not “good” things, but the atmospheric carbon left from the nuclear bombs may be used to catch ivory poachers, which is beneficial to  all mankind. The increased amount of poaching needs to be closely administered


Written by: Douglas Cobb

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