Bomb-Sniffing Elephants? Not So Nutty, Says U.S. Army


Dogs, bees, rats, and even dolphins and sea lions have been used to help sniff out explosives throughout most of the world. Recently, elephants have been added to that list as researchers in South Africa have teamed up with the U.S. Army to train these massive yet gentle mammals to help them detect TNT; a common explosive material found in land mines.

“Their [elephants] world is primarily olfactory… The sensitivity is recognized as being unparalleled,” assistant professor at Colorado State University’s department of fish, wildlife and conservation biology George Wittemyer told USA Today. Wittemyer has studied the herbivores in Kenya.

Another advantage to using elephants in order to sniff out explosives, in addition to their sensitivity to smell, is their memory. According to Stephen Lee, who is the head scientist at the U.S. Army Research Office, elephants have the ability to remember their training for longer periods of time than dogs can. The three elephants that were used for the experiments (Shan, Mussina, and Chishuru) also displayed a tiny margin of error when the TNT sniffing tests were administered to them, notes USA Today.

The pachyderms’ talents could prove very useful, particularly as Islamic militant group Boko Haram has been planting mines throughout Nigeria. Their talents will also be used to sniff out other mine fields throughout the continent. Since it is not logical to lug the huge mammals throughout mine fields, drones will likely be used to take samples from mined land areas and bring samples of the fields to the elephants.

Hundreds of buckets, some containing the odor of TNT, were placed in a line for the elephants to sniff out. In the first series of tests, the elephants reportedly detected TNT samples 73 out of the 74 times that they encountered its odor and in the same sequence and wrongly identified only 18 out of 502 buckets containing traces of the explosive element; that’s a 3.6% error rate.

In a second set of tests, USA Today notes that the elephants scored 100%, detecting TNT in 23 out of 23 buckets. This despite the presence of “distractor odors” like tea, bleach, soap and gasoline that were placed in the bucket.

Elephants populations have been in steep decline and are now facing tremendous threats due to poaching; primarily stemming from a growing demand for ivory in China. Tens of thousands of elephants are reportedly killed each year as a result. In light of the elephants’ plight, China issued a year-long ban on ivory imports from Africa in February of this year, according to the Associated Press. Although China is the world’s leading importer of illegal elephant tusks, Beijing has been leading the campaign against illegally-acquired ivory.

Follow Adelle Nazarian on Twitter @AdelleNaz



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