Blog dedicated primarily to randomly selected news items; comments reflecting personal perceptions

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Explosives-Detecting Pachyderms

 Explosives-Detecting Pachyderms

"They were picking up the scent from 100 metres away."
"The army wanted to know what it is about an elephant's trunk that's more advanced than a dog's snout. Can they apply it to a machine and get the machine to be more effective for their soldiers?"
Rory Hensman, Zimbabwean farmer "the Elephant Whisperer"
"We don't know how they do this. Ultimately, we are hoping to learn through nature how to better protect the soldier from threats."
Stephen Lee, chief scientist, Army Research Office, United States Army

After it was brought to the attention of scientists that elephants returning to Angola after the civil war that had rent the country were observed to be avoiding minefields, the theory was born that elephants were able to sniff out the presence of explosive mines. It was a theory that appealed to a Zimbabwean farmer notable for his talent for understanding elephants. Rory Hensman, who died a year ago, was called "the Elephant Whisperer."

He had spent two decades of his life training elephants, paying especial attention to those elephants considered to be "problems", whose fate, had he not intervened, would have been to be culled from their herds. Mr. Hensman adopted his first two elephants in 1988 and was amazed at how swiftly they responded to their environment. He taught them to herd cattle, to track down lost calves, and to check out the conditions of the fences on his Zimbabwe farm.

And he noted their astonishing sense of smell. He witnessed, on one occasion, an elephant tracking a robber across a field of paprika, crossing over a river, and then passing through a village. Which inspired him further to train his elephants to track poachers, and to unearth the whereabouts of purloined rhinoceros horn. The Hensman farm fell into the hands of the government of Robert Mugabe when white farmers were being hounded from the land they had farmed for generations.

Man and lady standing near the African elephant
Photo: "Elephant Whispers" - Lindie and Rory Hensman

The family fled to South Africa, taking their elephants with them, to establish a wildlife preserve about 130 kilometres north of Pretoria. The Elephant Whisperer and his 32-year-old son hid strips of paper upon which explosives had been scented, then they trained the elephants to stop, lift their front feet and salute with their trunks whenever they smelled the explosives. This initiative brought them to the attention of the U.S. Army.

Who dispatched a team of American army scientists to the reserve. Inspecting data that had been put together reflecting the experience of the past two years, the scientists came to the conclusion that the military, using Mr. Hensman's training protocol, would themselves be enabled to develop improved bomb detectors. Elephants are capable of locating the presence of explosives at a distance, unlike sniffer dogs.
Loving the friendly African elephant
Lindie Hensman

In 2003, Rory Hensman and his wife Lindie, who had originally come from Angola, set up a new venture, in collaboration with two others, which they named Elephants for Africa Forever, or EFAF. It is basically a tourism company, advertising its expert training and handling of elephants, promising clients an up-close and personal adventure with "elephant interactions".
Lowveld Elephant with trunk up in the air

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