Africa: Test could help stop ivory trade

by Jan 4, 2010Ivory

A forensic expert has developed a way of dating elephant tusks in a bid to help stop the illegal trade of ivory.


The European Union only allows the sale of antique ivory, from before 1947, but there has been no accurate way of distinguishing it from modern ivory.

A scientist at Edinburgh Zoo has now come up with a testing method.

Dr Ross McEwing said he could determine the age of ivory by looking at its level of carbon isotope, which rose following nuclear testing in the 1950s.

Widespread nuclear weapons testing during the post-war period caused a rise in the levels of the chemical in the atmosphere.

The amount of a carbon isotope known as carbon 14 doubled by 1965 and can be found in the bones and tusks of animals.

If an ivory sample shows a high level of the matter then it proves it came from an animal alive after the introduction of nuclear testing in the 50s and is therefore being sold illegally, according to Dr McEwing.

He has received funding from the UK government to develop the test, which is to be rolled out across the EU.

Dr McEwing, a director of the Trace Wildlife Forensics Network at Edinburgh Zoo, said: “The idea for this first came to me around 18 months ago and, following funding from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), the testing of ivory samples can begin by mid 2010, following a validation study.

“Developing a science-based forensic test to age ivory will hopefully act as a deterrent to those involved in illegal ivory trade as the evidence against them will be more accurate than ever before.

“Although the idea and testing originates in Scotland it will be made available to all EU countries so we can work together to help protect this endangered species.”

UK Wildlife Minister Huw Irranca-Davies MP, said: “We’re committed to playing our part in fighting the illegal trade in ivory and are delighted to have been involved in this innovative project.

“A successful ivory dating test will greatly enhance our enforcement effort to tackle poaching and its abhorrent effect on elephant populations.”