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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Kevin Uno at Lamont-Doherty. / Photograph by Jörg MeyerThe Cold War, it turned out, had stamped a calendar in organic tissue: plants absorbed the C-14, and animals that ate the plants absorbed it in their hair and teeth and bones, and animals that ate animals that ate the plants also absorbed it. The levels of C-14 in the tissues of animals alive during this period closely match the rise and dip of the bomb curve. For decades, forensic scientists have used the bomb curve to determine the age of human remains.

“When forensic scientists want to date decomposed bodies, which are basically just bones, no soft tissue left, they have less information to work with,” says Uno. “But it happens that your third molar, your wisdom tooth, forms when you’re between thirteen and fifteen years old. You can bomb-curve radiocarbon-date that and say, ‘This person was thirteen in 1970, and so was born in 1957.’ That was one of the original applications for the method. Tusks are different in that they never stop growing, so what we’re looking for with poaching is the year of the elephant’s death.”

A tusk is an elephant’s incisor, and the crucial part for Uno is at the base, up in the skull. “The tip of the tusk is the oldest part, and the base is the youngest. The base is where the pulp cavity is, and where new ivory is deposited every day. That’s the part you want to sample.” When an elephant dies, its most recently formed ivory will contain a record of the C-14 level at the time of death. “It will tell you when the elephant died,” says Uno. “A case where you have a seized shipping container of raw tusks would be a really good place to use this method, because you have that pulp-cavity surface.”

Kish’s call was not the first that Uno got about ivory.

In 2012, state and federal agents raided two jewelry stores in Midtown Manhattan. It was the biggest ivory bust ever in New York: the shops yielded a ton of ivory, valued at $2 million. The ivory, carved into bracelets, necklaces, and statuettes, had cost the lives of dozens of elephants. The shop owners failed to produce documents proving the ivory was legal. They pleaded guilty, surrendered their loot, and paid fines totaling $55,000, which went to the WCS and its anti-poaching efforts in Mozambique.

Conservation officials, wondering what to do with all the ivory, contacted George Amato, who is the director of conservation genetics at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and an adjunct professor at Columbia’s Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology (E3B). Amato is also the head of a wildlife forensics program that uses a species-identifying method called DNA barcoding to help monitor trade in wildlife. You could give Amato a mysterious piece of bushmeat, for example, and he could tell you what animal it came from. But Amato wasn’t sure what to do with a bunch of worked ivory. One of his postdocs, who knew of Uno’s work, called Uno and asked him if he would look at the haul, to see if there was any forensic information he could glean from it.

Uno went down to the museum and looked through bankers’ boxes full of ivory. But carved ivory is extremely difficult to date. “If you’re working with a carving,” says Uno, “you’re floating in the tusk — you don’t know where exactly in the tusk that ivory has been formed. Let’s say an elephant died in 1990: if you tested the pulp cavity, the result would show the ivory to be illegal. But the tip of that tusk probably formed twenty or thirty years earlier, and if you made a trinket out of that, it would come out as legal. So once the tusk begins to get cut up, you lose a lot of information.”

The jewelry and baubles in the bankers’ boxes were too small for Uno to locate in the tusk, so he didn’t do any analysis. That opportunity would come later.

“For me, it was good just to look at it,” he says. “I hadn’t spent a lot of time looking at carved ivory.”

“The base [of the tusk] is where the pulp cavity is, and where new ivory is deposited every day,” says Uno. “That’s the part you want to sample.”

Behold the treasure. Behold the ages. Lion Man of Hohlenstein Stadel, wrought of a mammoth tusk and found in a German cave; Venus of Hohle Fels, all mammaries and genitals, thirty thousand years old if she’s a day; behold the amulets and statuettes of Egypt, and Phidias’s ivory-and-gold-plated Zeus enthroned at Olympia. O bosomed Ariadne! veiled and draped sixteen inches from wreath to foot, conjured from Byzantium’s tooth, your chiseled maze of drapery foretelling the Virgin’s fine pleats in the Gothic carvings of ivory’s age d’or, when Parisian masters sculpted devotional diptychs and Virgins-with-child the size of a baby’s arm, and also boxes and combs and game pieces. Behold the Japanese netsuke, small as your thumb, depicting persons, vegetables, and animal conjugality, and the larger okimono (bird catchers, fishermen), ornaments popular with Westerners in the Gilded Age; and mad Mr. Kurtz, Conrad’s European ivory trader, terror of the Congo forest (“The word ‘ivory’ rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed. You would think they were praying to it. A taint of imbecile rapacity blew through it all, like a whiff from some corpse”); and America, once the greatest ivory market on earth, flush with gunstocks and knife handles and billiard balls and piano keys and poker chips, her appetite lately reduced, her preeminence dislodged by China, where 70 percent of today’s poached ivory ends up, and where master carvers pare breathtakingly intricate idylls as delicately filigreed as white coral.

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