While civil strife in Angola ended over ten years ago, remnants of conflict are still strewn across the country in the form of land mines. Areas of the country that are littered with active land mines are marked so that humans can easily avoid contact. Animals, however, are still at risk of severe injury or death.
In the years immediately after the Angolan Civil War ended, elephants began migrating back into the country from neighbouring Botswana. When the elephants began returning, they came in contact with active land mines that were scattered across large, open fields. Many environmental and de-mining organizations began to notice the bodies of dead elephants in areas where active mines were known to have been left behind.
However, over time, fewer dead and injured elephants were being found in active-mine areas. Some herds that were being tracked by South Africa’s Peace Parks Foundation (which helps track cross-border movements of animals) found that elephants were, over time, able to travel through areas with active mines without coming in contact with them. This prompted researchers to ask whether the elephants, like some mammals, could smell explosives, or if they were simply avoiding certain areas because they saw dead or severely injured elephants there.
Heightened Sense of Smell
It’s now known that elephants are able to detect explosives with their heightened sense of smell. Other animals have also been known to detect and help de-mine active areas across Africa. In the last few years, rats have been used by APOPO, a Belgian NGO, to help track down active land mines in Mozambique. The rats, which were too light to set off the mines, could detect them quickly. Then, humans would be able go in and neutralize them.
The speculations in Angola resulted in a complete study on whether elephants can truly detect explosives. For almost five years now, research has been conducted in Bela-Bela, a town located northwest of Johannesburg, South Africa, in partnership with the American military (and funded by the US Army Research Office) and researchers from universities across the United States. The project has been headed by Sean Hensman, who owns the Adventures with Elephant ranch. Three elephants were used during the trial.
To test the elephant’s sense of smell, buckets were placed in a line, with some containing traces of TNT, and others containing various materials that would smell differently.
The first round of the study found that “the elephants detected TNT samples 73 out of the 74 times [and that] they only got this wrong 3.6 per cent of the time.” Rows of buckets were laid out, the elephants were taught to sniff each one, and would lift one of their front legs if they detected explosive materials. During the second round, the elephants were able to correctly detect every single bucket containing explosives. It’s also believed that an elephant’s sense of smell is so strong that it can detect explosives from up to 100 meters away.
These findings show that wild elephants are capable of detecting and steering clear of areas where active land mines are still present. However, the use of elephants to aid humans in neutralizing these mines is quite controversial.
Elephants are an endangered species, and are hunted and ruthlessly killed by poachers for their ivory tusks. Conservation efforts are currently in place in to help protect elephants, so using them in a risky de-mining project is highly unlikely to happen. Rather, researchers are hoping to be able to adapt their heightened sense of smell to electronic sensors, and use new, innovative technology to help find and neutralize active land mines.
Learn more about the Peace Parks Foundation through their website.