Elephants in Angola have learned how to detect and avoid landmines. Following Angola’s civil war, the countryside was littered with landmines, killing elephants and people with impunity.
After a time, researchers noticed that some elephants were somehow avoiding mines, and sounding a warning to other elephants. Anti-personnel landmines are a hideous weapon that kill and maim thousands of people a year, usually children and far from any conflict. Once set, a mine remains deadly forever if not removed. The detection skills of the elephants have the potential to save thousands of innocent lives. How do they do it?
The answer is in the elephant’s most distinguishing feature, the trunk. An elephants’ trunk is among other things like a huge, complicated nose, capable of distinguishing thousands of smells. One use of this amazing ability is to communicate with other elephants. Elephants can send scores of chemical signals to their peers, using these signals to maintain social order and communicate environmental conditions. For example, specific volatile chemicals in elephant urine can indicate exactly the exact stage of a bull elephant’s mating cycle, as well as information regarding its age and size. When a huge, old bull is feeling amorous, a quick sniff of the urine warns other bulls to space themselves out, reducing dangerous conflicts.
One problem with using the elephant nose as mine detectors is that nobody is considering using the elephants themselves to find the mines. Researchers need to somehow duplicate their sniffing ability, and while studies are underway to do just that, success is not guaranteed. A simpler approach might be to use an animal that is too light to set off the mines (dogs are vulnerable). Some agencies use pouched rats, but a really safe option might be bees. Bees have the ability to sniff out thousands of different plants and related chemicals, and have been observed to avoid foraging in contaminated areas. Deployed in a known mine area, the bees can be tracked and the avoided areas isolated (mines and unexploded munitions leach explosive residue into the surrounding soil). Better still, it might be possible to train the bees to deliberately seek out explosives.
At the moment, most mine clearing is done by brave men and women using prods and hand-held detectors at great risk to themselves. Given the awful legacy of buried mines, any of these new ideas would bring a tremendous benefit. Best of all would be to never plant any mines in the first place, but the ones already out there still need to be found and defused. Even if the technique doesn’t pan out, it goes to show that there is a lot to be learned from our non-human cousins.