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Bomb Sniffing Elephants Could Do Much More Than Detect Only Bombs

Elephants could be more effective than dogs at sniffing out explosives. Plus they may be able to use their sense of smell in early disease detection.

Elephants have a better sense of smell that dogs, and they remember the training for longer periods of time. They are being trained to detect explosives, in a benign test that puts the elephants in no danger but allows them to detect the odor of TNT.

The research came about rather by chance. It was observed in an earlier research project that tracked migration routes, that elephants avoided mine fields. The elephants were fitted with GPS collars and it was noticed that they bypassed the mine fields. This raised the eyebrows of researchers, who wondered if the elephants could in fact smell TNT and differentiate it from other smells.

In a double-blind test where neither the elephant nor the handler has any idea where the TNT may be located, the elephants do surprisingly well. A small piece of paper impregnated with the odor of TNT is placed in a bucket, and the bucket is placed randomly amongst several other pails. The elephant is then asked to find the target bucket, and to lift its leg upon doing so.

The research is being funded by the Rory Hensman Elephant Research Unit (RHERU), the University of the Witwatersrand, and the U.S. Army Research Office.

“We generally find that the boys learn a little bit quicker than the girls, but the ladies retain their training for a lot longer,” says Michael Hensman, Manager of RHERU’s Adventures with Elephants. “In the region of four to six months. And we can have the elephants consistently detecting TNT.”

The elephants will not be placed in harm’s way, but may be used to offer early detection and identification of minefields.

It is also hoped that the elephants will be able to use their amazing olfactory sense in the early detection of human diseases, such as diabetes and cancer. The nose knows no limits.

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Bomb Sniffing Elephants Could Do Much More Than Detect Only Bombs