Funk in the trunk
Elephants trained to sniff out poachers
Mussina, the matriarch of an elephant herd at Zebula private game reserve in Limpopo, walks along a fence with 10 cans balanced on it.
Like a witness to a crime, she is doing an identification parade, but in this whodunit she is relying on scent rather than facial recognition: in each can is a garment, and she must match the smell to the person who put that clothing close to their skin.
Elephants have twice as many olfactory receptor genes as dogs, making them potential crime busters with the powers to catch or identify poachers by their scent.
The first time Mussina wanders down the line, touching each can with her trunk, she appears inattentive. But the next time, she correctly matches the clothes to people (including me).
She is acing the scenting lineup until her baby, Bela, bounds over with ears flapping to find out what’s going on and demanding affection.
Reserve owner Sean Hensman smiles as Mussina walks away with Bela, who celebrates her first birthday on Saturday.
“We did the scent discrimination training about five months ago and you saw how quickly Mussina was back into it, on her second run,” he said.
The seven elephants at Zebula, where scientists from half a dozen universities are doing research, range freely most of the time but are trained with food rewards to complete tasks.
Zoologist Ashadee Kay Miller, of the University of the Witwatersrand, has shown that they can also detect the explosive TNT. “They have huge potential for landmine clearing,” she said.
The Zebula elephants could pick up the smell of explosives from impressive distances, and in Miller’s experiment they indicated TNT by holding their front foot over a bucket.
In the wild, scent plays a key role in kin recognition, and Hensman believes elephants could deploy their more than 2 000 olfactory receptor genes to help catch poachers and ensure their own survival.
“They are a keystone species for wildlife conservation and have lost about two-thirds of the land they once had access to . . . we are heading for a genetic bottleneck,” he said.
The Centre for Conservation Science at the National Zoological Gardens in Pretoria is setting up an elephant genetic database, aiming to collect DNA from 30 000 animals in private reserves in sub-Saharan Africa.
One of the scientists involved, molecular biologist Desire Dalton, said the US Army had donated an automated DNA extraction system.
“We put tissue into the machine and have the DNA two hours later,” she said. “We are the forensic unit for wildlife crime and have more than 130 000 samples from wildlife.”
The elephant database could alert smaller reserves to potential inbreeding and, crucially, be used in anti-poaching cases.
Research on elephant milk, by Professor Garry Osthoff from the University of the Free State, also aims to help save elephants — in this case orphans, which typically don’t thrive without their mother’s milk.
He has discovered that elephant milk is unique among mammals, changing through lactation to become more Banting-like: higher fat, with fewer sugars.
“Elephant milk has much more fat than cow’s milk and during lactation the sugars (also unusual types) are getting less and the fats more, starting at about 2% and increasing to a whopping 20%. Making the surrogate formula milk is not easy and that may be why we have problems rearing baby orphans,” Osthoff said.
Researchers at the Rory Hensman Conservation and Research Unit/Adventures With Elephants are exploring a range of topics including elephant communication (vocal and infrasound); parts of their anatomy, such as skin, teeth and feet; feeding habits; contraception; and ways of resolving human-elephant conflict. Even elephant massage is on the agenda.
The Zebula elephants, which were given a new lease of life in the 300ha Waterberg reserve after being branded “problem animals” and destined for culling, have become accustomed to humans and are easier to study than wild herds would be.
Hensman said his late father, Rory, started training rescued elephants after he noticed how they reacted to names and commands. He grew up with elephants in Zimbabwe and would swim with them.
The elephants said a gentle farewell to Rory before he died of cancer, he said. “We came back from the hospital and he wanted to visit the ellies. They came to his wheelchair, touched him and spent time with him.”
At the funeral, the elephants stood quietly at the back as if paying their last respects to Rory.
Former wildlife photographer of the year Greg du Toit, who has spent three years following elephants in Africa, wrote of this picture: ‘It was in Amboseli National Park in Kenya that I spotted this herd hastily crossing a dry lakebed and on their way to water. The baby tripped, momentarily. Its mother was quick to slow down and she checked if it needed assistance. It was a brief and tender moment but one I will never forget.