The forensic technique of carbon dating can now be used to help catch law-breaking ivory dealers. It’s not illegal to buy and sell antique ivory products – as long as the ivory in question dates back to before 1947.
As you can imagine, there’s no shortage of people willing to swear their products are over the required age (even deliberately ‘ageing’ the appearance) in order to make a sale. It’s a loophole that has helped maintain the illegal ivory trade. Before now, the only way to estimate the age of animal parts was to employ an expert with a skilled eye, which was not always enough for a successful prosecution.
But it’s been discovered that by applying the forensic testing technique of radio carbon dating, we can prove if an ivory product is preor post- the 1947 watershed, and therefore legal or not. The scientific test accurately measures levels of radioactive carbon-14 in the ivory – an element that significantly increased in the environment (and in the cells of all living organisms) when nuclear bomb tests started in the early 1950s. Alarming but true.
This means any animal born since 1950 will display the tell-tale high levels of carbon- 14 – and would coincidentally prove, for example, that a piece of ivory dates from after 1947, meaning it’s illegal. This scientific evidence should make it much harder for illegal traders to evade prosecution – and will hopefully help break the illicit poaching and trading cycle.
The Forensic Analysis Fund was set up in 2008 to finance forensic techniques needed to investigate and prosecute people for wildlife crime. The fund is financially supported by WWF, TRACE (the wildlife forensics network), the RSPB and the DEFRA. Without this funding, tests like this wouldn’t be given priority within the limited budgets of the police and customs, and prosecutions wouldn’t be taken forward.
WWF’s Eyes and Ears Initiative asks the public to report any suspicious activities, in the UK or abroad, which might be linked to the illegal trade in wildlife. Reports can be made by calling 01483 426111.