Most illegal ivory is less than three years old

African elephant Kenya

African elephants are facing stark declines due to poaching.

Courtesy of Thure Cerling/Univ. of Utah

Around 90 percent of ivory seized by law enforcement came from African elephants that died shy of three years before being collected, a study of ivory samples finds. The results confirm what many conservationists have suspected: Long-term stockpiles don’t contribute much ivory to illegal trade, and recent poaching is pushing regional elephant populations into a nose-dive.

Last year, DNA evidence linked tusks to poaching hotspots in Africa. Now researchers have used radiocarbon dating on some of the same tusks to pinpoint the time of death of the elephants to which they once belonged. The team sampled 231 specimens seized in 14 large-scale raids from 2002 to 2014.

Out of all the ivory tested, just one specimen came from an elephant that died more than six years earlier, researchers report November 7 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In geographic trends, ivory from East Africa appeared on the market faster than ivory originating in the TRIDOM forest region of central Africa.

Helen Thompson is the multimedia editor. She has undergraduate degrees in biology and English from Trinity University and a master’s degree in science writing from Johns Hopkins University.

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