conservation banner with gorilla picture

quick links

OKC Zoo Curator Learns the True Treasure of an Elephant Trunk

Posted by Laura Bottaro on 11/14/2013


Recently, Oklahoma City Zoo Animal Curator Laura Bottaro had the unique opportunity of traveling to Bela Bela, South Africa, to attend a workshop hosted by the United States Army and Adventures With Elephants (AWE). Bottaro and scientists, biologists and conservationists from around the world, all with the common goal of saving Africa’s elephants and rhinos, attended the first annual Indigenous Biosensor Workshop. Presentations centered on a variety of animals’ abilities to discriminate scent and the best methods of utilizing those abilities for detecting poachers and their tools for trapping and killing wildlife, as well as sniffing out vehicles, vessels or planes that may be carrying illegal ivory and horn.

The Problem.

Africa’s elephants and rhinos are under siege at an accelerated rate for their tusks and horns. Even during the three-day workshop, 40 elephants were killed by poachers for their tusks.  Approximately 35,000 elephants were killed throughout 2012 and 2013.  In addition, an estimated nine rhinos per day are killed for their horns. In the Asian culture, elephant tusks are a sign of prestige and rhino horn is believed to have medicinal properties. Science, however, has proven rhino horn consists of only hair and keratin, much like the human fingernail.

Historically, other animals, such as military trained dogs, have been known to detect and discriminate a variety of scents at very low thresholds. Recently, scientists determined that Namibian rats are able to detect scent. Dolphins have been working with the U.S. Navy since the 1960s to protect American waterways using sonar or echolocation--an innate ability. These highly skilled species continue to help the military detect threats in American airports as well as our soldiers and civilians against land and water mines overseas.

The Team.

AWE owners, Sean and Mike Hensman are sons of Rory Hensman, a renowned elephant expert and conservationist who passed away in February after losing his battle with cancer. The Hensman’s are carrying on their father’s legacy of educating South Africans about elephants and their value to Africa’s ecosystem.

Since discovering elephants are capable of detecting scents a few years ago, the Hensmans have helped local police locate copper thieves, bushmeat (illegal game) camps and land mines.  Consequently, the Hensmans and their elephants came to the attention of Dr. Steven Lee, chief scientist for the Army. Their collaborative efforts birthed the workshop format. Future research will be able to determine if elephants can become another biosensor to help humans detect physical and biological threats by bringing scents to the elephants.

The Training.

Bottaro met Sean a few years ago in Oklahoma City, along with army consultant Kip Shultz.  Sean not only invited her to the workshop, but also asked her to spend two days in Africa at the Hensman safaris facility, where Sean and Mike hold classes for guests with their six elephants rescued from two herds scheduled to be destroyed, or “culled,” due to overpopulation and destruction of land. The classes include natural history of African elephants, safety of moving around them and the conservation issues they face, including poaching, habitat encroachment and human/elephant conflict.

Guests meet each elephant up close and watch presentations by their personal groom and protector. Guests can then choose to saddle up and ride around the 40-acre farm where they may encounter warthogs, giraffe, eland, impala, ostrich and a variety of other birds and wildlife.

“The interactions were very special,” said Bottaro. “The elephants seemed very relaxed and the joy on the participants’ faces showed me the connection between elephants and their guests.”

Between training sessions and interactions, the elephants freely roam the bush with their grooms where they can forage, bath, play and rest. Around 5 p.m., the elephants promptly remind their grooms that it is time to go home by lining up and walking up the hill to their roomy stable for the night.

Most significantly, Bottaro was able to spend several hours in the bush with the grooms and elephants. “It was an amazing time,” Bottaro said. “It was clear that the grooms have great passion and affection for their charges and it appeared the elephants reciprocate. I was able to conduct a few training discussions with the staff to share my experiences.” 

AWE is committed to the conservation of elephants, local communities and saving rangeland. If you are interested in learning more, please visit For more information about Oklahoma City Zoo conservation work, please view

Adventures with Elephants

Association of Zoos and AquariumsOklahoma City's Adventure DistrictBest Zoos at 10Best.comDr Pepper 23     Central Oklahoma Frontier country

© 2009 Oklahoma City Zoo. All Rights Reserved. Privacy Policy | 2101 NE 50th St. Oklahoma City, OK 73111 • 405-424-3344
Website designed by Back40 Design & managed by Javelin CMS

The Zoo is a fully accredited member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and the American Association of Museums (AAM) as both a living museum and a botanical garden. AZA accredited facilities are dedicated to providing excellent care for their plants and animals, a great experience for guests and a better future for all living things.

A New Breath of Fresh Air: As of Nov. 1, 2007, state law prohibits smoking inside zoological parks. Please help us abide by this law by refraining from smoking within the Zoo. Thank you for maintaining a smoke-free environment for all living things!