Nuclear Fallout May Help Track Illegal Ivory

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“I would also add that there is no price that can be put on the loss of elephants,” Uno said. “It sounds a bit dire, but at the current poaching rates -- 25,000 to 30,000 elephants per year -- some of the smaller forest elephant populations are in real trouble. Elephants are a keystone species in many ecosystems, so their absence in an ecosystem would have many cascading effects.”

The same holds true for rhinos, hippos and many other animals frequently targeted by poachers.

Ivory: The New Blood Diamonds

Co-author George Wittemyer said that a three-pronged combative approach is needed: “focusing on in-situ anti-poaching, tackling the demand side in some way that effectively diminishes the ultimate driver of the trend and disrupting the criminalized illegal trade networks.”

The new nuke-based testing technique costs about $500 per sample.

"Each analysis is an investment in discovering the truth about a given case,” said co-author Daniel Fisher of the University of Michigan, with the weight of evidence making it easier for authorities to prosecute people involved in the illegal trade -- the poachers, middlemen and sellers.

Previously, Samuel Wasser, director of the Center for Conservation Biology, formulated another testing method based on DNA evidence. DNA from elephant dung, when matched against DNA from a piece of seized ivory, can tell authorities where the ivory originated.

Wasser and the other researchers pointed out that poachers have become quite clever, by doing things such as changing business names rapidly over the Internet and carving off the tusk’s base, which is optimal for scientific testing.

“There were an estimated 46.5 tons of ivory seized in 2011, with even higher numbers suspected in 2012,” Wasser told Discovery News. “That suggests that close to 50,000 elephants were killed to provide the ivory seized in 2011. With a total population of 400,000 elephants, this is a very serious situation.”