Robots and drones are not the only ones making a name in the military industry. Elephants are now being trained for bio-detection in South Africa.
The elephants are being tested to see if they can utilize their heightened sense of smell to look for poachers, landmines and explosives. The project, which is showing great results, is supported by the United States Army Research Office, according to RT.
Chishuru, the name of a 17-year old male elephant, underwent a test-run where the objective was to see if the elephant could sniff out a swab contaminated with TNT. The laced swab was fitted under one of the buckets lined up in a row.
The elephant sniffed each bucket using his trunk. When he stumbled upon the bucket with the TNT swab, he would stop and raise one of his front legs, indicating that he found the swab. Chishuru got the right bucket every single time.
Similar to training a sniffer dog, Chishuru was given a treat every time he did right. The elephant would receive his favorite marula, a yellowish fruit found in the woodlands of Southern Africa.
Adventures with Elephants operator Sean Hensman said that the elephant’s nose was one of a kind as its ancestor, the mammoth, survived by finding food using its trunk during the ice age. Adventures with Elephants is a game ranch located 180 kilometers northwest of the training site in Johannesburg.
One inspiration for the project was the elephants located in Angola. The animals have experienced decades and decades of civil war. Mines were scattered in several areas, but the elephants managed to avoid them, suggesting that they could smell the mines using their trunks and avoided them.
Another interesting fact is that elephants in Africa, particularly in Kenya, can distinguish between the farming people of Kamba and Maasai, those people who hunt elephants for sport, according to some studies.
Hensman narrated that his father was surprised during the 1990s after a female member of an elephant herd in Zimbabwe tracked him while he was watching the elephants.
After this discovery, Hensman’s father trained 12 elephants to be used for anti-poaching patrols in the landlocked country. However, due to the land seizures by Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe, Hensman’s family lost three farms, forcing them to move to South Africa.
United States army researchers have been overseeing the elephant project for five years now. They said that elephants will not be used in the battlefield.
The U.S. Army Research Office chief scientist Stephen Lee said:
“We could bring scents from the field collected by unmanned robotic systems to the elephants for evaluation”
When asked which has the better, the sniffing capability between an elephant or a dog, Lee has said that they still have no firm findings and they would like to see more evidence before jumping to a conclusion.
However, Lee said that the elephants have one advantage over the dogs. The latter requires constant training to remember a specific scent, while the former only need several sessions to remember.
In addition, dogs have only 811 genes dedicated to smelling, while elephants have 1,948. Humans have 396.