New research by a team that includes Paleontology Prof. Daniel Fisher could apply carbon-dating methods used to study prehistoric animals to fight modern-day elephant poaching.

Using standard carbon-14 dating methods on seized ivory tusks, Fisher and his colleagues can now predict the date of an elephant’s death, indicating whether or not the material was extracted before the ivory trade was banned in 1975. Kevin Uno, a former researcher at the University of Utah, is the lead author of the paper detailing the discovery.

The illegal ivory trade is one that has seen significant growth in the past several years as demand in Asia has increased. Thure Cerling, a geology professor at the University of Utah who worked with Fisher on the project, said some estimates predict that the illegal trade could amount to a billion-dollar underground market.

“There are now something like 30,000 African elephants a year that are being killed by poachers,” Fisher said. “It’s really a serious problem. And that’s from a population of only a few hundred thousand and so at this rate they could be in really dire straits.”

The carbon-dating used by the research team relies on changing carbon-14 levels in the atmosphere. Cerling said that in the 1950s and 1960s the U.S. and the Soviet Union both engaged in numerous above-ground nuclear weapons tests which doubled the atmosphere’s carbon-14 levels. Since the testing was discontinued, the levels have been declining due to the balancing effect of the world’s oceans and ecosystems. These trackable changes give researchers like Fisher and Cerling clues as to when layers of ivory were formed.

“What we do is take a small sample of that material bordering the base of the tusk (and) measure the amount of carbon-14 in that sample using accelerator mass spectrometry,” Fisher said. “In certain circumstances that measurement all by itself may be enough to determine the date of death of the animal.”

The individual testing of samples from seized ivory shipments costs about $500, Cerling said. However he said this is a small price to pay, considering both the magnitude of the poaching problem as well as the millions of dollars that are associated with the illegal industry.

However, cost is also what is preventing the research from going any further. Cerling said a lack of funding has stopped the team from applying their carbon-dating method to suspect ivory outside the laboratory.

Yet Cerling says they must continue to pursue funding as the poaching problem persists. Just last week, five tons of ivory worth $20 million in the Philippines was seized, he said.

Fisher said up until now, it’s been nearly impossible to convict ivory smugglers because they can claim that the ivory was extracted before the bans in 1975 and 1989. But this carbon-dating method could provide evidence against them.

“You find the shipper and you say so what’s up with these tusks in the clothing (shipment) and they say ‘oh oh yeah yeah well we had some space in the shipment. No need to worry about that that’s old ivory… so it’s perfectly legal’ and we say ‘hmm we’ll see about that’,” Fisher said.

George Wittemyer, a professor of ecology at Colorado State University who is involved with the study and has conducted extensive research on African elephants in the past, said this new method has the potential to ease the poaching problem by providing precise data.

He said one of the main questions that this research could answer is exactly how illegal ivory is being obtained. If the tests indicate that the seized ivory is from elephants who have died in the last few years, they will have evidence of current and active poaching. Likewise, if the ivory appears to be taken from animals killed within the last 20 years, the researchers will be able to infer that it is coming from storehouses.

“We’re very interested in how this ivory being is procured,” Wittemyer said. “This is an important technique to help us identify the mechanisms of the trade.”

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