||06 February 2011 07:00
|Show: ||Carte Blanche|
These elephant are not out for a leisurely stroll on an elephant safari. They are on a serious training exercise where their incredible sense of smell is being utilised to detect the presence of explosives in the bush around them.
They are walking along a safe lane with dummy landmines planted at irregular intervals on the side of the road. The explosives they are asked to find are shotgun cartridges sealed in plastic bottles. The elephants' sense of smell is so acute that they are able to detect the explosive of the cartridges in the bottles up to a hundred metres away.
When they detect something nearby, they give a signal to the handler by stopping and swinging a foot. Then they lift a trunk for a reward, and they never miss a single hidden explosive.
Rory Hensman (Adventures with Elephant): 'Their sense of smell is 28 000 times stronger than ours, 14 times stronger than a decent dog.'
Rory Hensman has been training elephant for decades, and we caught up with him at a unique education centre near Bela Bela.
Rory: 'I trained lots of elephant. I trained... I don't know... about eighty, ninety elephant.'
Rory and his son Sean were ready to introduce us to their troop just after sunrise. Apparently the elephant are early risers.
Derek Watts (Carte Blanche presenter): 'It's 07:00 on a very warm Bela Bela morning in the Waterberg and it's time to wake our pachyderm friends. They've been in the stable since 5:30 yesterday afternoon. Had more sleep than I did, I think.'
The elephant overnight in a special stable and when we arrived they were clearly eager to start the day.
Derek: 'I'm still waiting to be introduced, but the elephant are keen to get a quick drink at the trough, then some free range breakfast before they start their working day.'
To demonstrate the elephants' incredible memory skills we were introduced to Musina, a young female.
Handler: 'Derek... remember Derek. Got that Musina?'
Derek: 'So I've met Musina. She's an eight-year-old from a private game farm in that area. She was about to be culled. Elephant are famous for their memory. Let's see if she remembers my name at the end of the day. I've got to go, Musina, see you later.'
Then we accompanied the elephant further into the veldt for some leisure time and free range foraging.
Rory and his family came to South Africa from Zimbabwe after they were pushed off their land by war veterans.
Before the land grabs began, wild life had always been a part of their lives, and Rory's interest in training elephant started in 1988 when they took in two orphaned baby elephant after Zimbabwe's Parks Board culled hundreds of elephant.
Rory: 'I wanted the kids to be able to learn about elephant. We very quickly realised how intelligent they were and how keen they were to work with us, and we suddenly realised that these guys were learning a hell of a lot more than we gave them credit for.'
They soon realised that the elephant were exceptionally intelligent and could learn up to a hundred verbal commands and about a thousand English words.
Growing up with elephant, Sean has developed a very special understanding of these gentle giants and their abilities.
Sean: 'I've been lucky to have elephant at a very young age. I've loved them from day one. They've been part of us. They blow my mind every single day.'
Rory and Sean call their education centre 'Adventures with Elephant' and say the main aim is education and creating conservation awareness.
Rory: 'What we're trying to do is educate the public on elephant and we find that people coming here, doing the interaction, go away with a totally, totally different perception of elephant.'
At the facility visitors get the opportunity to interact with the elephant and learn about them.
Sean: 'This hard outside layer protects the soft inside layer.'
The elephant clearly enjoy the interaction with humans.
Sean: 'Quite heavy, hey?'
To demonstrate the elephants' memories they are introduced to four people. The elephant then turn their backs and after the visitors have changed places, they are told to give a hat to a specific person.
Sean: 'Give it to Jane. Good girl!'
Then the participants are asked to take off a shoe and, based on their sense of smell and their memory, the elephant are asked to give the shoe of one person to another.
Sean: 'Pick up Meyer's shoe, give it to Werner.'
Every time they are spot-on.
Sean: 'The value is in being able to allow people to just experience elephant like we can. It's fantastic and I love watching people at the end of an interaction. They're blown away.'
Clearly Rory and Sean's elephant are well trained, but the question is: how do you train an elephant?
When we broke the Tuli elephant story, the cruelty of the trainers enraged the nation. But, many people still believe the only way to train an elephant is to use force.
Derek: 'Now, there's a perception that you have to beat an elephant to train it.'
Derek: 'That's what I want to know.'
Sean: 'If I wanted you to come with me into the bush and do something dangerous and I beat you, would you come with me?'
Derek: 'Probably not, but if you offered me a fillet steak I might.'
Sean: 'Exactly! And that's the way it goes. And if I can inspire you to want to do the job and come and do it with me, then you're going to do it. And that's the way it works. It's exactly what we do with our elephant. If you treat it properly and you don't beat it, then it's not nervous of you; then it's happy to be around you. And like you saw today, they want to be with you.'
Elephant are very intelligent and are also keen to please and achieve. The Hensmans use a system of reward, combined with natural behaviour, to train them.
For example: To teach an elephant to do a headshake requires no more than a handful of straw behind the ears.
[Sean places handful of straw behind elephant ear. Elephant shakes head.]
Sean: 'And then we say, 'Well done, headshake.' And that is the way we train them.'
And trust is an important element as well.
Rory: 'With these guys, if we ask them to swim across a dam, they will do it, because we ask them to. And once they've got that much trust in us, we have to be very careful that we don't cheat them.'
The elephant we met were all saved by Rory and Sean's education centre.
Sean: 'Destined to be culled, they came from a private game reserve in the north of the country. They had overpopulated the area; there was no one who wanted them. In fact, they had lost their value. They offered them to us; they had seen what we were doing with the elephant. We took them in, we trained them.'
[On Sean's instruction, elephant rises onto hind legs.]
Sean: 'Okay, so one in every thousand elephant can do that.'
Apart from the interaction sessions, the elephant are also used in various research projects such as exploring inter-species communication and using captive elephant to help re-introduce other elephant back into the wild.
Sean: 'We want to push with research into smelling cancer in people. They're doing it with dogs in America. We'd love to be able to do it with elephant here.'
There are also research projects under way to find out why elephants' long term memories improve with age, unlike that of humans.
And there are many practical uses to their highly developed sense of smell.
Rory: 'The sense of smell from a use point of view is phenomenal - from tracking poachers, finding hidden arms caches, finding rhino horn.'
In Zimbabwe, Rory also used them on the farm to herd cattle and they even assisted in tracking down robbers. His current troop ranges in age between 8 and 15 years.
Rory: 'We've taught these guys to track poachers and we've done that pretty effectively. We've taught them to find landmines, we taught them to find arms caches.'
We were impressed with the elephants' ability to smell out explosives. But how good are they really at tracking poachers?
Derek: 'Apart from finding these dummy landmines, the elephant are also going to track these make-believe poachers, Laurence and Owen. They're going to hide anywhere in this bush. Guys are you going to set off now? OK... stay hidden, we'll see you later; we hope.'
Lawrence and Owen took a zigzag route to a hiding place in thick bushes about three kilometres away.
The elephant were shown where the make-believe poachers sat down and left a cap. With the command 'Smell, Follow' they set off. Never wavering or hesitating, they followed in the tracks of the poachers and found them effortlessly in the bush.
Derek: 'Rory, that was incredible, but is it always that successful?'
Rory: 'Very, very seldom do they lose interest and lose scent. The furthest we followed people was 16 km successfully.'
Derek: 'Now, you see their potential for anti-poaching?'
Rory: 'Massive... if you take the eastern border of the Kruger Park, being approximately 400 kilometres long, and you had four groups of three elephant each carrying two game rangers and each group of elephant controlling a hundred kilometres - fifty kilometres either side - I think you would have an amazing impact on poaching in the Kruger Park like that.'
Some visitors also go on a leisurely walk with the elephant in the bush. We asked a few of them what their thoughts were.
Canadian girl: 'Surreal. I never had an experience like this before, and such a new respect for elephant. They are incredible, brilliant animals.'
Irma: 'Being a member of PETA, I was a bit worried about elephant abuse, so I'm pleasantly surprised.'
Derek: 'You don't feel they're being mistreated?'
Irma: 'No, not at all, not at all.'
Derek: 'All in all, amazing! And it's just amazing how they treat them, the reward method they use. No cruelty involved. Ja, it's excellent!'
Then it was time to see if elephant really have good memories.
Derek: 'Well, it's eight hours since I was introduced to Musina. I thought we had something of a special bond. But does she still remember my name? We're going to find out...'
To make it really difficult I stood between three other people who had also been introduced to Musina earlier. She was given a cap.
Sean: 'Give it to Derek.'
[Elephant gives cap to Derek]
Derek: 'That is amazing. Absolutely amazing!'
Sean: 'She can remember you up to 26 months later, so incredible.'
After a long day, visitors get a rare chance to join the elephant for a swim in the dam.
And while the educational element is important to Rory and Sean, they are convinced that the elephant would also be an exceptionally effective tool in the fight against rhino poaching.
Derek: 'So in a way our elephant could save our rhino?'
Rory: 'Absolutely. That's what I always wanted to do when we started this concept in Zim. We lost thirty three thousand rhino to poachers and I'm still convinced elephant could have made a hell of a difference to that... hell of a difference to that.'
IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER:While every attempt has been made to ensure this transcript or summary is accurate, Carte Blanche or its agents cannot be held liable for any claims arising out of inaccuracies caused by human error or electronic fault. This transcript was typed from a transcription recording unit and not from an original script, so due to the possibility of mishearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, errors cannot be ruled out.