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Forensic Clues Aid Fight Against Ivory Trade

August 6, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, a new weapon in the fight against ivory smuggling. Our story comes from Julian Rush, science correspondent for Independent Television News.

JULIAN RUSH: Selling ivory isn’t illegal as long as it comes from an elephant that died before 1947. Until now, that’s been difficult to prove, so the market for ivory has continued to drive poaching.

ALAN ROBERTS, National Wildlife Crime Unit: All the elephant ivory that is taken has at one stage been on the front of a live elephant. Somebody’s killed the elephant to obtain the ivory and very often killed the game wardens to obtain the elephant in the first place. People who are prepared to do this, it’s organized crime.

JULIAN RUSH: Dating ivory needed an expert eye, and forgers have got very good at carving new ivory and faking it to look antique. Now, from a tiny sample, scientists can tell old from new and all because of something that happened in the 1950s.

One radioactive element in the fallout from the nuclear bomb tests of the era was Carbon-14. Every mushroom cloud, it seems, had a silver lining.

The sample is carefully prepared for analysis. Until the nuclear era, Carbon-14 in the atmosphere was at a constant level, but the nuclear bomb tests suddenly added extra Carbon-14 to the atmosphere. And because it’s taken up into the bones and tissue of every plant and animal on Earth, the scientists can detect it.

PROFESSOR GORDON COOK, Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre: If we find that the level of Carbon-14 is enriched, then we know that that animal, the elephant, was alive during the nuclear era, and therefore the ivory that we’ve analyzed is illegal ivory.

High-Tech response to crime

JULIAN RUSH: A state-of-the-art particle accelerator is used to count the Carbon-14 atoms in the sample. The use of such a high-tech machine as this against wildlife crime is the result of a new collaboration between forensic scientists, conservationists, and police and customs.

This accelerator mass spectrometer is normally used to date bones for archaeologists or rocks for geologists. It's the first time this sophisticated carbon-dating technique has been used in a case of wildlife crime. It brings a new weapon to the fight against an illegal trade in animal parts and products that some have estimated is worth more than a billion pounds a year.

DR. ROSS MCEWING, Trade Wildlife Forensics Network: We now are able to fully enforce the wildlife trade legislation. Before, we weren't able to do that. So it opens the door, really, for police to use funds and to actually go after people who are trading in ivory.

JULIAN RUSH: The dating technique was used in court. Though the woman accused of illegally trading ivory was acquitted, her defense did not challenge the science.

HEATHER SOHL, WWF-UK: We still believe that forensic tests such as the one used in this case are very strong and should be used where possible in order to help the enforcement authorities to actually stop these traders. So it won't stop us from supporting forensic test development nor in their use by enforcement authorities. It's a key step to make sure that in the future there are successful prosecutions.

JULIAN RUSH: This ivory was recovered from poachers in Kenya in April. Because of the trade in fake antique ivory, the number of elephants killed is rising again. Conservationists hope now they can date ivory scientifically and accurately, the forgers will think again and the elephants will live.