The U.S. army is training elephants in South Africa to use their uncanny sensory abilities to sniff out landmines, explosives and biological weapons. They have also, apparently, been handy in the past for tracking down poachers.
The South African reported the project was originally the brainchild of a game ranch operator, Sean Hensman, owner of Adventures with Elephants where the tests are being run. Hensman apparently noticed the pachyderms’ exceptional sense of smell while growing up in Zimbabwe.
— Sputnik (@SputnikInt) February 24, 2015
Supported by the U.S. Army Research Office, the project has been ongoing for around five years. Chief scientist Stephen Lee explained that elephants have a big advantage over sniffer dogs especially because, as the story goes, an elephant never forgets.
“Dogs require constant training while the elephants seem to understand and remember the scent without the need for constant training.”
Last week the project had a test run at the game ranch in Mabula, 110 miles from Johannesburg, using a 17-year-old male elephant named Chishuru who has been undergoing training.
A row of buckets was set up for the test. A swab was stuck on the base of one bucket, laced with the smell of TNT and it was Chishuru’s task to find out exactly which one was the culprit. As he walked along, the elephant inserted his trunk into each bucket and when he reached the laced one, he stopped and raised his front leg to confirm his discovery. As a reward for his efforts, the elephant received a marula fruit, a particular favorite of the species.
African elephants reportedly have twice the number of smell sensors of dogs and five times more than us mere humans. Remarking on just how sensitive an elephant’s nose is, Henman mentioned the mammoth, predecessor to the elephant, who had to find food through the ice.
According to Times Live, Hensman’s father had once successfully used 12 elephants in various anti-poaching patrols in Zimbabwe, until he lost his ranch in President Robert Mugabe’s land takeover. However, with the current climate, scientists feel a better use for the animals will be to detect biological weapons and explosives.
Lee said while the elephants would not actually be out in the field, the various scents could be collected using unmanned robotic systems and then brought to the animals for evaluation.
Not everyone is in favor of the idea, as can be seen from Twitter.
— March4ElesAndRhinos (@EleRhinoMarch) February 25, 2015
— jamalone (@voice4action) February 24, 2015
When Lee was asked, between the dog or the elephant, which animal had the better nose, he said that in their work they don’t yet have a firm conclusion. It seems to be the fact that the elephant never forgets that pushes the envelope and training continues in South Africa.
Speaking elephants, the Inquisitr recently reported on a rather more unhappy pachyderm in Thailand who climbed on, and crushed, a car due to mating season stress.
[Image: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Skip Russell]