Radiocarbon dating may help in the fight against illegal wildlife trade

The sale of ivory is only legal providing that it is from an elephant that died before 1947. The difficulty in enforcing this law is that it is very difficult to date ivory and forgers have become adept at faking modern carvings to make them look old. However scientists have recently used radiocarbon dating to date confiscated ivory and last week the results were used as evidence in a court case.

Normally radio carbon dating is used to tell the age of ancient bones or rocks; the technique measures the levels of Carbon-14 a radioactive isotope of carbon that decays over time, and compares it with the level of normal carbon (which doesn’t decay). However during the 1950s and 60s the fallout from nuclear bomb testing bolstered the levels of Carbon-14 taken up by organisms and produced a spike in the ratio of Carbon-14 to normal carbon in those organisms alive at the time. Finding the spike in a piece of ivory clearly identifies that the elephant was alive after 1950.

Luckily, that corresponds nicely with the date for the age of ivory that can be legally sold. The ‘nuclear bomb’ effect could prove very effective in helping to tackle other illegal wildlife trades like that in tiger body parts, rhino horn and scrimshaw.

The potential of the technique was realised by TRACE Wildlife Forensics Network who contacted scientists in Scotland who specialise in radio carbon dating. For more information see the report on the Channel 4 news site and the TRACE website.