THEIR sense of smell is one of the most powerful of any mammal. Now African elephants are being trained to sweep for landmines and detect explosives.
Several years ago scientists noticed that elephants returning to Angola after the country’s civil war were avoiding minefields, leading to the theory that they knew how to sniff out mines.
The observation fascinated Rory Hensman, a white Zimbabwean farmer of British origin known as “the Elephant Whisperer”, who spent 20 years training “problem elephants” that would otherwise have been culled.
Hensman, who died last year, adopted his first two elephants in 1988. Noticing how quickly they learnt, he taught them to herd cattle, to find lost calves and to check the fences on his farm in Zimbabwe.
Their sense of smell astonished him. He once watched an elephant track a robber across a field of paprika, over a river and through a village. He trained his animals to track poachers and find stolen rhino horn.
When President Robert Mugabe ordered his men to seize white-owned farms, the Hensman family fled and smuggled their elephants into South Africa.
On their new wildlife reserve about 80 miles north of Pretoria, the capital, Rory and his son Sean, 32, who has taken over his late father’s work, hid strips of paper scented with explosives in plastic bottles. They trained the elephants to stop, lift their front feet and salute with their trunks when they smelt explosives. “They were picking up the scent from 100 metres away,” Hensman said.
The American army soon became interested and a small team of US army scientists was dispatched to the reserve.
“The army wanted to know what it is about an elephant’s trunk that’s more advanced than a dog’s snout,” Hensman said. “Can they apply it to a machine and get the machine to be more effective for their soldiers?”
Using data collected over the past two years, the scientists believe the military will be able to develop better bomb detectors.
Unlike sniffer dogs, elephants are able to find explosives at a distance. “We don’t know how they do this,” said Stephen Lee, chief scientist at the Army Research Office. “Ultimately, we are hoping to learn through nature how to better protect the soldier from threats.”
Follow this link to watch a video of the elephants in action: http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/news/world_news/Africa/article1411920.ece