Bomb-sniffing elephants trained in South Africa

In the South African bush, elephants are being trained in the art of “bio-detection” to see if they can use their exceptional sense of smell to sniff out explosives, landmines and poachers.

Supported by the United States Army Research Office, the project looks promising.

During a recent test run, a 17-year-old male elephant named Chishuru walked past a row of buckets. A swab laced with TNT scent had been stapled to the bottom of one.

Sticking his trunk into each bucket, Chishuru stopped and raised a front leg when he came across the one with the swab. He got the bucket right each time.

And like a sniffer dog, he was rewarded with a treat: marula, a fruit that elephants love.


Trunks warning them
“An elephant’s nose is amazing. Think about mammoths, which had to find food through the ice,” said Sean Hensman, operator of Adventures with Elephants, the game ranch 180km northwest of Johannesburg where the training is being conducted.

The project has a number of roots. Elephants in Angola, which suffered decades of civil war, have been observed avoiding heavily-mined areas, suggesting their trunks were warning them to stay away.

In Hensman’s case, he said his father was startled in the 1990s while watching a herd of elephants in Zimbabwe to discover that a female member of the herd had tracked him.

Inspired, his father trained 12 elephants for anti-poaching patrols in Zimbabwe but in 2002 the family lost their three farms to President Robert Mugabe’s land seizures and came to South Africa.

US army researchers, who have been involved in the project for five years, say unlike in Hannibal’s day, elephants will not be staging a return to the theatre of combat.

“We could bring scents from the field collected by unmanned robotic systems to the elephants for evaluation,” said Stephen Lee, chief scientist of the US Army Research Office.

Never forgetting
And who has the better nose, the dog or the elephant?

“In our work I don’t believe we have a firm conclusion. We would like to better quantify this,” Lee said.

But the old adage about an elephant never forgetting seems to have some basis in truth.

“Dogs require constant training while the elephants seem to understand and remember the scent without the need for constant training,” Lee said. – Reuters

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories

Elephants in the room

Science should lead the way in society’s efforts to protect habitats, wildlife and people’s livelihoods

Ban on sending wild elephants to zoos a step closer

A large majority of countries voted in Geneva to prohibit the transfer of elephants caught in the wild to so-called captive facilities

Elephants reduced to a political football as Botswana brings back hunting

Lifting the trophy hunting moratorium in Botswana is more about politics and less about elephant conservation

New survey raises concerns about elephant poaching in Botswana

There is a significant elephant-poaching problem in northern Botswana that has likely been going on for over a year

NSPCA to take action against Joburg zoo over elephant

The NSPCA is calling for the zoo’s sole elephant to be released and is prepared to take legal action to see it done

Botswana fights claims of elephant poaching spree

Elephants Without Borders claimed two weeks ago that it had discovered at least 87 elephant carcasses during a routine aerial survey
Advertising

Vaccine trial results due in December

If successful, it will then have to be manufactured and distributed

White men still rule and earn more

Women and black people occupy only a few seats at the JSE table, the latest PwC report has found

ANC still at odds over how to tackle leaders facing...

The ANC’s top six has been mandated to work closely with its integrity committee to tackle claims of corruption against senior party members

The PPE scandal that the Treasury hasn’t touched

Many government officials have been talking tough about dealing with rampant corruption in PPE procurement but the majority won't even release names of who has benefited from the R10-billion spend
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday