A Sound of Trumpets

The global lust for ivory threatens to silence the African elephant forever. Can a hidden remnant of the Cold War help stem the slaughter?

by Paul Hond Published Summer 2014
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Photograph by Daniel Pupius / Getty Images

In December 2013, Kevin Uno, a postdoctoral researcher at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, received a phone call from Todd Kish at Canada’s environmental protection agency. Kish told Uno that the Canadian government had confiscated two elephant tusks from an auction house in Toronto.

Uno had been waiting for a call like this. As a graduate student in geology at the University of Utah from 2005 to 2012, he had worked on a technique for radiocarbon-dating elephant tusks, hoping, he says, “to see how fast they grow, and to use them as a sort of ecological tape recorder of an elephant’s life.”

But tusks aren’t just any animal tissue. They are made of ivory, called “white gold” in China, a precious commodity for which African elephants are being butchered to the brink of oblivion. The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) estimates that thirty-six thousand African elephants were killed in 2012. Savanna elephants, the world’s largest land mammals, which numbered five to ten million a century ago, have fallen to four hundred thousand. Forest elephants, found in central Africa, have declined by 65 percent in the past twelve years, leaving about one hundred thousand. At this rate, the WCS warns, the forest elephant could disappear in the next decade.

It wasn’t long before Uno realized his method for dating ivory could be a tool in the battle for the elephants.

The need for such a tool flowed from the porousness of the law. In 1989, amid a poaching frenzy in Africa driven by ivory demand in the US, Japan, and Europe, the world decided to act. The United Nations had implemented the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in 1975 to address the sustainability of the world’s natural resources. Now, with elephants dying at unprecedented rates, the CITES signatories — 115 countries — voted to move the African elephant to Appendix I, where the most threatened species are listed, effectively banning international trade in African-elephant ivory harvested after 1989.

Though this standard was difficult to enforce, the ban, along with a militarized crackdown on poachers in East Africa, appeared to work: elephants began recovering. Then, in 1999, the CITES body, petitioned by the African nations of Botswana, Namibia, and Zimbabwe, allowed those governments to make one-off sales of their ivory stockpiles to Japan. Another sale was permitted in 2008 to Japan and also to China, whose roaring economy was feeding a demand for status-conferring ivory figurines. The logic was simple: African states would use the money to fund elephant conservation programs, while the influx of sixty-eight tons of cheap ivory into China would undercut the black market.

Things went differently. China, with its state-run carving factories and ivory shops, kept the price of the acquired ivory artificially high, which gave smugglers an opening to grab more of the market share. The legal ivory also provided cover for the illicit goods. Ivory became more visible and available, and demand increased. So did the price. In Africa, poaching deaths — elephant and human — soared.

“This trafficking of illegal wildlife parts is right up there with trafficking guns, humans, and drugs,” Uno says of the $19-billion-a-year business. “It’s a huge, huge source of money. A lot of that money goes to support militias and terrorist groups in Africa,” like the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda and Somalia’s al-Shabaab. “How do you think they’re buying their AK-47s? They’re trading ivory for guns. It’s the exact same trade network that you’d use for drugs — it’s already in place — so they’re the ones doing it. They’re the ones who have the networks to move stuff around.”

How, then, could authorities determine whether or not a tusk — one for sale at an auction house, for instance — was legal?

In July 2013, Uno and his co-authors published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences called “Bomb-curve Radiocarbon Measurement of Recent Biologic Tissues and Applications to Wildlife Forensics and Stable Isotope (Paleo)ecology.” In it, Uno and his team described a technique that could determine the age of unworked ivory to within a year.

Now, in December, the Canadian government had one question for Uno: could he give a kill date for the confiscated tusks?

A supernova flash. Zeus’s thunder. A stalk of pewter-colored dust climbing thousands of feet, its head bulging and billowing into a great cortical mass against a hard blue sky.

Between 1955 and 1962, in the Nevada desert, in the Pacific, in the Siberian “Valley of Death,” the US and the Soviet Union conducted more than four hundred aboveground nuclear tests. Among other effects on the environment, the explosions nearly doubled the amount of radioactive carbon — the carbon isotope C-14 — in the atmosphere.

In 1963, the two superpowers signed the Limited Test Ban Treaty, agreeing not to detonate atomic bombs in the atmosphere, under water, or in outer space. As a result, the levels of atmospheric C-14 began subsiding, producing what is known as the bomb curve.

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