The largest land mammals, the African elephant, are being trained in “bio-detection” and could possibly be utilized in the future to sniff out explosives, landmines and poachers.
The project being carried out in the hot South African bush is supported by the U.S. Army Research Office with promising results.
During a recent test run, a 17-year-old male elephant named Chishuru walked past a row of buckets with a swab laced with TNT scent that 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 and got the right bucket each time.
“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 where the training is being conducted 180 kilometers northwest of Johannesburg.
A number of similar projects have been undertaken in other countries. For example, 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 the case of South Africa’s Hensman, he said that roughly 20 years ago his father was tracked by a female member of the herd he was observing in Zimbabwe. He later trained 12 elephants for anti-poaching patrols in Zimbabwe but lost their three farms in 2002 to President Robert Mugabe’s land seizures and came to South Africa.
Now, the son is leading efforts to train elephants in their game ranch.
The U.S. Army, however, clarified that elephants will not become animals of war similar to the days of the legendary Hannibal.
“We could bring scents from the field collected by unmanned robotic systems to the elephants for evaluation,” said chief scientist of the U.S. Army Research Office Stephen Lee.
But the study could also lead to even more promising discoveries.
Last year, researchers from the University of Tokyo discovered that African elephants had more genes dedicated to smell than any other mammal.
Elephants have 1,948 genes dedicated to smell, compared to 811 in dogs and 396 in humans, making them even more effective than bomb-sniffing K9 units.
“Dogs require constant training while the elephants seem to understand and remember the scent without the need for constant training,” Lee said.
This could also confirm the common saying that elephants never forget.