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

Leon Marshall in Johannesburg, South Africa
for National Geographic News
July 16, 2007
Elephants moving into war-ravaged southern Angola from neighboring countries appear to have developed the ability to avoid the land mines that litter the region, scientists report.

Michael Chase, a biologist who has been studying the elephants for seven years, says he first detected the animals' apparent ability to avoid the mines from satellite-collar tracking images.

The elephants are returning in growing numbers to southeast Angola, where thousands of the animals were massacred during the country's protracted civil war, said Chase, who heads the nonprofit conservation group Elephants Without Borders.

The region was headquarters for Jonas Savimbi's rebel UNITA movement, which is reported to have sold ivory to pay for weapons.

(Read related story: "Illegal Ivory Trade Boosted by Angola Craft Markets, Conservationists Say" [October 27, 2006].)

Since the end of the war in 2002, elephants have begun to go back to the Luiana Partial Reserve in Angola's sparsely populated Cuando Cubango province that borders southwest Zambia and Namibia (see Africa map).

Chase said that when the initial migration began a number of elephants had their trunks and legs blown off by mines, condemning the animals to agonizing deaths. But the elephants that followed since have avoided those areas.

"I don't know if elephants have 'learned' to avoid land mines, but my limited observations suggest they might have," he said.

"Once I overlay the movements of our five satellite-collared elephants with the location of [the known] mine fields, it would appear that they were avoiding these areas."

Evidence that elephants are avoiding the danger zones is supported by his team's observations on the ground, he added.

"We have not seen any evidence of elephants being blown up or injured by land mine explosions in the three years we have been working in this area," he said.

"Incidents of elephants being injured or killed by land mines used to happen often when elephants were chased over these areas by people."

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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