Nuclear bombs may provide a weapon against the ivory trade
The element carbon exists in a number of isotopes, however by far the most abundant in nature is carbon-12 (around 99%). Carbon-14 only exists in organic substances derived from living organisms that have recently died, so for instance the body of a woolly mammoth that died thousands of years ago will have a lot less carbon-14 than an animal that is still alive as most of the carbon-14 will have decayed (into nitrogen-14 by beta decay).
As the decay rate of carbon-14 is known, we can estimate the time of death using the amount of the isotope left in the body, known as carbon dating. Measuring the amount of carbon-14 has also proved to be especially useful in recent years in the fight to stop the ivory trade, due to the distinctive peak in the level of carbon-14 in the atmosphere.
Between 1945 and 1989 surface testing of nuclear bomb caused a peak in the atmospheric level of carbon-14, with a rapid rise and subsequent decline when the international ban came into force known as the bomb curve.
This had a knock on effect for the amount of carbon-14 animals took up when their cells formed, and so by comparing the level of carbon-14 in animals and the bomb curve we are able to determine the date of death (when the animals stopped forming cells and so stopped taking up carbon-14) to within around one and a half years.
This includes harvested elephant ivory, which was made illegal by a trade ban in 1989. The level of carbon-14 in the ivory has enabled conservationists to determine when the ivory was harvested, and so whether or not it was done so illegally (after the trade ban).
Fighting the ivory trade is an on-going battle, with thousands of elephants being brutally killed for their ivory every year, so every weapon we can use against poachers is Invaluable. Despite the ban, some estimate that as many as 36,000 elephants are being poached every year and rates of poaching are now the worst they have been since 1989. Asian elephants are now endangered, with African elephants vulnerable. For more information on the ivory trade, visit www.bornfree.org.uk, a foundation that aim to keep wildlife in the wild, or www.bloodyivory.org.