GMA’ on Safari: Training Elephants to Track Poachers


ABC News

Date Published


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In Bela-Bela, South Africa, a group of researchers is turning the table on poachers and training elephants to do something pretty amazing.

ABC News’ T.J. Holmes, who is in South Africa ahead of Tuesday’s epic live 360-degree safari adventure on “Good Morning America,” visited Adventures With Elephants, where he met Chova, a 20-year-old elephant. The elephant is part of an extensive research and training program to determine whether the animal’s incredible sense of smell can be used to track poachers and save lives.

Several years ago, scientists noticed that elephants returning to Angola after the country’s civil war were avoiding minefields, leading to the theory that they knew how to sniff out mines.

The observation fascinated Rory Hensman, a white Zimbabwean farmer of British origin known as “the Elephant Whisperer,” who spent 20 years training “problem elephants” that would otherwise have been slaughtered.

Hensman, who died last year, adopted his first two elephants in 1988. Noticing how quickly they learned, he taught them to herd cattle, to find lost calves and to check the fences on his farm in Zimbabwe.

Their sense of smell astonished him. He once watched an elephant track a robber across a field of paprika, over a river and through a village. He trained his animals to track poachers and find stolen rhino horns.

When Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe ordered his men to seize white-owned farms, the Hensman family fled and smuggled their elephants into South Africa.

On their new wildlife reserve about 80 miles north of Pretoria, the capital, Rory and his son Sean, 32, who has taken over his late father’s work, hid strips of paper scented with explosives in plastic bottles. They trained the elephants to stop, lift their front feet and salute with their trunks when they smelt explosives.

“They were picking up the scent from 100 meters away,” Sean Hensman said.

The U.S. Army soon became interested and dispatched a small team of its scientists to the reserve.

“The Army wanted to know what it is about an elephant’s trunk that’s more advanced than a dog’s snout,” Hensman said. “Can they apply it to a machine and get the machine to be more effective for their soldiers?”

Using data collected over the past two years, the scientists believe the military will be able to develop better bomb detectors.

Unlike sniffer dogs, elephants are able to find explosives at a distance.

“We don’t know how they do this,” said Stephen Lee, chief scientist at the U.S. Army Research Office. “Ultimately, we are hoping to learn through nature how to better protect the soldier from threats.”

Elephant poaching and ivory trade is an illegal, multimillion-dollar business.

African elephants have lost over 50 percent of their range since 1979. This, combined with devastating poaching for ivory and trophies, has caused the population drop significantly, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) website.

The elephant population in Tanzania, for instance, has dropped a shocking 53 percent over the past six years; to an estimated 51,000 last year from 109,000 in 2009, according to National Geographic.