The illegal trade in "protected" wildlife and their body parts is a multibillion-dollar-a-year business that is quickly supplanting the drug trade and gunrunning as organized crime's most profitable venture. Nothing embodies this trend better than ivory. Despite more than 20 years of trade bans, illegal ivory still floods the world market and brings ever-increasing prices from consumers in China, Japan and the U.S., putting African and Asian elephants in constant danger of poaching and extinction.

Part of the problem enforcing the ivory trade ban is determining the source of any ivory that comes up for sale. "Antique" ivory is still legal in most places, but once a tusk has been carved, it is almost impossible to tell how old it is.

Until now.

A new test developed by Ross McEwing of Scotland's Edinburgh Zoo may soon offer a new and easy method to determine the age of ivory by testing it for levels of carbon 14, a naturally occurring carbon isotope that now exists at much higher than historic levels in plants and animals following decades of atomic testing in the 1950s and 1960s.

McEwing's technique requires just a tiny, dust mote–size piece of ivory, which is then tested for carbon 14. The results of carbon testing can then determine if the ivory came from an elephant that was born prior to 1947 (the U.K.'s cutoff point for "antique" ivory) or if the animal came from the nuclear age. Too much carbon 14 in the ivory means that it is, in all likelihood, illegal and cannot be traded.

"It will work," McEwing told The Scotsman. "The technique already works for humans and ivory is just a growing tooth."

The U.K.'s Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has provided McEwing with about $45,000 to refine his test. He'll spend the next six months testing it on ivory samples from the Scotland's Royal Museum and other U.K. museums. Because the samples will have a full provenance and therefore already be dated, this will allow him to make sure that the technique works as expected.

If so, it could soon provide a welcome and needed tool for agents investigating materials being imported into the U.K. The test would be expensive ($475 per test), but that's a fraction of the price that illegal ivory would fetch on the black market.

"Developing a science-based forensic test to age ivory will hopefully act as a deterrent to those involved in illegal ivory trade as the evidence against them will be more accurate than ever before," McEwing told the BBC.

Poachers seeking ivory kill more than 100 African elephants a day, according to research conducted last year by the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

Image: African elephant via Wikipedia