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Nuking Elephant Poachers

Rezwan Razani - July 21, 2013

Great news for elephant lovers and people in search of Cold War redemption.

In Cold War Radioactivity Can Date Illegal Elephant Ivory, the National Geographic Daily news reports:

Fallout from long-ago Cold War explosions is now a forensic tool in the very modern war against elephant poachers and the illegal trade in ivory.

Poachers killed over 30,000 elephants last year for their tusks, despite a 1989 ban on such activity.  Protecting the elephants has been very difficult.

Law-enforcement officials trying to stem the tide have had to contend not only with highly organized criminal gangs, but also with complexities in international law that allow ivory acquired before the 1989 ban to be legally bought and sold.  Trying to distinguish legal (pre-1989) ivory from poached (post-1989) ivory has been nearly impossible—until now.

Bomb Curve Dating to the Rescue

Luckily for elephants, cold war atom bomb testing in the 50s and 60s released certain radioisotopes into the air.  This was unlucky for people at the time, as it damaged their health.  But it did have one redeeming feature that benefits elephants today.  The fallout can be used to determine the age of an elephant tusk and thus, whether or not it is poached.

A new ivory-dating technique, described this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, relies on radioactive isotopes released into the atmosphere during atom bomb tests in the 1950s and ‘60s. A ban on aboveground nuclear testing went into effect in October 1963.

Known as bomb-curve dating, the technique allows scientists to detect radioactive isotopes within ivory or tusks and thus determine to within a year the time the elephant died or was killed. The bomb curve is the fluctuating concentration of carbon-14—a heavily radioactive isotope—in the atmosphere since the 1950s.

“This will tell us the age of the piece and thus whether or not it was acquired legally,” said study leader Kevin Uno, a postdoctoral researcher at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

“It is a simple, accurate, and affordable test and will make it far easier to enforce the ivory ban.”

Read the rest of the article!

Atomic Testing

Is this redemption enough to make up for the testing?  No.  Over 2000 bombs were exploded above and below ground.  These had the effect of turning the public off to nuclear energy and injuring and killing many people who were downwind.  From Terry Tempest Williams;

I belong to a Clan of One-Breasted Women. My mother, my grandmothers and six aunts have all had mastectomies. Seven are dead.” So begins the epilogue of my memoir,  Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place, written in 1991. As Utahns, residents of the Atomic West, we are hibakusha, explosion-affected people bound by the wind. Half of my family has died from cancers that I believe were a result of radioactive fallout caused by aboveground nuclear explosions tested in the Nevada desert from 1945 to 1962. In declassified materials from the Atomic Energy Commission, Mormons and Indians living downwind of the blasts were considered “a low-use segment of the population.” In the eyes of our government, my people were expendable. Almost $800 million has been paid in compensation to “down-winders” as an acknowledgment and apology by the government for negligence against its citizens in the testing of nuclear weapons during the Cold War. My family’s story is just one in an anthology of thousands.

Note that Terry is reconsidering nuclear power, even after this terrible cold war abuse.

So when I say that Robert Stone’s film Pandora’s Promise challenged my thinking after thirty years of antinuclear activism and repeated arrests at the Nevada Test Site on behalf of “the Clan of One-Breasted Women,” it is not a small statement. This crack in my own thinking is heightened by the fact that I am now watching my extended community of plants, animals, rocks, rivers and human beings be ravaged by the oil and gas industry, be it fracking or the razing of vulnerable wildlands. And then there is the BP oil spill.

Read more from Terry Tempest Williams on her website.


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