The testing came to light when Sen. John McCain was bashing governmental waste, but the idea is based in solid science. George Wittemyer, an assistant professor at Colorado State University’s department of fish, wildlife and conservation biology, told the Associated Pressthat an elephant’s world “is primarily olfactory. The sensitivity is recognized as being unparalleled.”
The idea for elephant testing came out of practical experience. When the Angolan Civil War came to an end in 2002, mines still dotted the landscape. People started noticing that elephants were avoiding areas known to have land mines. Could the animals detect the mines, were they just avoiding areas where other elephants had died, or some combination of the two? Research was necessary, and the Army stepped in with funding.
Early tests proved promising: elephants were able to determine samples of TNT 73 out of 74 times. In the next round, where scientists placed “distraction odors” near the elephants, including tea and gasoline, the pachyderms did even better, scoring 23 out of 23 TNT samples.
Elephants can detect bombs, that much seems to be settled. But that seems to ignore, pun intended, the elephant in the room: These animals are big. Bigger than dogs, bigger than any other land animal, for that matter. Getting them to a war zone is highly impractical. That leaves the Army with two options, according to Stephen Lee, head scientist at the U.S. Army Research Office: bring the war zone to elephants or try to recreate their abilities. The first option involves unmanned drones which would scoop up scent samples, which the elephant could then test remotely.
The second option involves further technological research: Lee says that researchers are developing a sensor based on an elephant’s trunk that could puff out air, stirring up an area, and then suck in air to smell. He says that the sensor research is being done on a “shoestring budget” with volunteers.
Shoestring or not, success or not, the idea sounds so outlandish on the surface that it has gotten tagged with the “waste” tag. It remains to be seen whether elephants will ever, in a official capacity, detect a single bomb.