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.

Fol­low Greg on In­sta­gram @greg­du­toit

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.

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