The Power of Smell

Around 30,000 elephants are killed in Africa every year for their tusks. Rangers try to stop them but they are very few in number and the territories they cover are very large.  It is very hard to find the poachers and stop them; what the Rangers need is some very strong detective controls, but what could those be?

Adapting an effective control from another area of activity can often yield results.

Dogs have been used for a long time for rescue work and for detecting drugs and weapons. A dog can smell things at a concentration of one part in a trillion, equivalent to a single drop in a pond the size of 20 Olympic swimming pools.   Adapting this extraordinary skill, canines have started to be used in conservation.

Dogs can lead researchers to the scat of endangered animals so that the scientists can assess the population of such animals; and trained dogs can sniff out the amoeba-sized larvae of invasive mussel species in ponds or irrigation canals (invasive zebra mussels have inflicted $5bn worth of damage in the Great Lakes region of USA/Canada).  In both cases detection enables action.

Now dogs provided by the non-profit organisation Working Dogs for Conservation are being used in the Serengeti (Tanzania) to detect ivory poachers. Using just four trained dogs, they have caught hundreds of poachers already and they are raising funds to provide more.  Having now got a highly effective detective control, the Rangers’ efforts can be equally highly focused on achieving their goal – stopping the killing of elephants.

Nature itself also adapts, and evolutionary change can happen faster than you might imagine.  A biologist from Princeton University recently studied the phenomenon of tuskless elephants in Mozambique.  More than 90% of that country’s elephants were killed between 1977 and 1992, their ivory being used to fund one or other side in the civil war there.  As a result of that, it seems that a genetic mutation has occurred whereby around 50% of female elephants are born without tusks.  Unfortunately for the males, where they have the same mutation it means that they die before being born; but maybe Nature will sort that one out as well.

Data Sources: National Geographic magazine; Science journal;; (website of Working Dogs for Conservation)

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