Elephants "Learn" to Avoid Land Mines in War-Torn Angola

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Can Elephants Smell Land Mines?

Ian Whyte is senior researcher at South Africa's flagship Kruger National Park, which has an estimated 13,000 elephants within its boundaries.

He said the animals may well be able to develop the ability to avoid mined areas. But exactly how they do it—whether it's by true learning or by an ability to detect the mines somehow—is a matter of conjecture.

"Maybe they are able to smell the mines," Whyte said. "They move about with their trunks right on the ground, and it could be that they pick up the scent in this way.

"But they are also intelligent animals which move in groups. Maybe they learn to avoid places where they see other elephants get blown up."

Successful migration of elephants between countries could help restore balance to populations in the region, Chase said. In nearby Botswana elephants are burgeoning in number, he explained, while populations in Zambia and the rest of Namibia are comparatively small.

There are encouraging signs that the vacuum created by Angola's decades-long war could siphon off a good many of Botswana's elephants, estimated at about 150,000, he said.

But to re-establish and sustain wildlife communities in Luiana Partial Reserve, it is critical that the area be declared a national park and that the land mines be cleared, he added.

Apart from a cursory land mine survey in 2003, little is known of the extent of the mine problem, and until more work is done the mines will continue to render large portions of the region uninhabitable, Chase warned.

Johan van den Heever, chief executive of Demining Enterprises International, the firm that carried out the 2003 survey, says removing the mines is no easy task. The mined region is vast, and roads there are barely passable.

But clearing should start sooner rather than later and should be done in strips, he said, to provide corridors for elephants to pass through and create safe areas for tourists to start visiting what he describes as "one of the most beautiful places on Earth."

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