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Combatting Illegal Wildlife Trade one Atom at a Time


Nuclear and isotopic techniques can provide information as to the geographical origin of wildlife products like ivory and wood in order to assess whether they come from a legal source or not. (Photo: D. Osborn/IAEA)

The illegal wildlife trade is a serious threat to biodiversity, livelihoods and economies across the globe. Combatting this challenge requires multilateral cooperation supported by precise science and innovative tools – see The fight to bring a deadly illegal industry to justice. One particular challenge for national authorities is identifying – with high levels of confidence – from where an illegal product originates. For example, to determine whether ivory confiscated at an airport comes from East Africa, West Africa or somewhere in Asia. Working at the scale of the atom, the IAEA is demonstrating how ratios of particular isotopes (atoms of the same element but with different weights) can be used to identify the origin of smuggled ivory.

Results from a recent interlaboratory comparison exercise coordinated by the IAEA have shown that techniques designed to measure the ratios of certain isotopes are reliable. Importantly, they provide a geographical fingerprint which allows experts to differentiate between very small samples of ivory sourced from different locations. Organised by the IAEA in partnership with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Germany, the exercise provided an example of how nuclear and isotopic techniques can be used in countries to combat illegal trade in products such as ivory and wood.  

“When people hear the term ‘nuclear’, they don’t usually associate it with protecting the environment. Yet here we have concrete examples of how nuclear and isotopic techniques can be used to help protect biodiversity,” said David Osborn, Director of the IAEA Environment Laboratories. “Nuclear science provides a magnifying glass to understand what is happening around us.”

Just as carbon-14 provides information on age, isotopes of hydrogen and oxygen can provide information on the geographical origin of goods. “National experts can use this information to reinforce their initiatives to combat the illegal wildlife trade, for example, by verifying that statements of origin are accurate,” said Mr Osborn, “or knowing where to allocate valuable human and financial resources needed to eliminate poaching or illegal forestry.”

When an elephant eats and drinks, the growing tusks incorporate atoms of hydrogen and oxygen, as well as other elements transferred from the soil to plants. By analysing their isotopic ratios and comparing them to the maps of hydrogen isotopes developed by the IAEA, scientists can match the area from where the ivory originates and assess whether it is from a legal source or not.

These same techniques can be used for a variety of applications. With the recent rise in the woolly mammoth ivory trade for example, nuclear and isotopic techniques could also be used to assess whether the ivory is indeed from extinct mammoths, or from present day elephants. Woolly mammoth ivory can be traded legally, but is more expensive than elephant ivory. Some unscrupulous suppliers have been known to use elephant ivory instead, thereby perpetuating the threat on African elephants. The trade is taking on such proportions that during the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) Conference of Parties last month, there was extensive discussion on how to improve monitoring of the elephant and mammoth ivory trade.  

Isotopic and nuclear techniques can also be used to assess the origin of many wildlife products, including tropical wood. Logging is one of the first causes of deforestation and of loss of habitat for many wildlife species. While there has been a rise in certification programmes for the sustainable use of some timber, these often rely on declarations from the wood producers as to the origin of the wood. Just like ivory, nuclear techniques can be used to verify its geographical provenance. By helping to further refine the techniques, train scientists and improve analytical quality through Certified Reference Materials and Proficiency Testing, the IAEA can support Member States in their efforts to limit unregulated deforestation. The IAEA Environment Laboratories are currently developing, for example, new wood standards to support the analysis of stable isotopes as well as recommended methodologies on how to take representative wood samples, Mr Osborn said.

The IAEA Environment Laboratories participated in a side event during the IAEA General Conference last week presenting some of the work they are doing in this area. Organised by the Missions to the United Nations in Vienna of the United Kingdom and South Africa, participants heard of projects where nuclear and isotopic techniques are used to assess the origin of wildlife products and how they can contribute to the global fight against illegal wildlife trade.

The IAEA provides reference materials which can be used by Member States as part of initiatives to address the illegal wildlife trade. (Photo: M. Groening/IAEA)

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