Scientists use nuclear test to stop poachers

Researchers with the University of Utah recently began using a nuclear test to fight poachers who kill rhinos, hippos and elephants by determining when an animal died and whether the ivory was taken illegally.

The researchers used radioactive carbon-14 deposited in teeth and tusks by open-air nuclear bomb tests. The carbon-14 was formed in the atmosphere by U.S. and Soviet atmospheric nuclear weapons tests in Siberia and Nevada between 1952 and 1962.

In the U.S., raw and worked African ivory is only legal if it was imported before 1989 or at least 100 years old. The test can determine if the trade is legal or not.

"This could be used in specific cases of ivory seizures to determine when the ivory was obtained and thus whether it is legal," Thure Cerling, the senior author of a study, said.

Kevin Uno, the study's first author, said the dating method is affordable and accessible to law enforcement and government agencies. The method costs approximately $500 per sample.

The method may also have additional applications beside fighting poaching alone.

"We've shown that you can use the signature in animal tissues left over from nuclear weapons testing in the atmosphere to study modern ecology and help us learn about fossil animals and how they lived," Cerling said.

Approximately 30,000 elephants are slaughtered for their tusks annually. Only 423,000 African elephants remain on the planet.

The study was published last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.