Over 50 countries are contaminated with hidden landmines and other explosive remnants of war, that cause tragic accidents and hamper communities from developing their productive land.
Meanwhile, slow and inaccurate detection methods make tuberculosis the world’s most deadly infectious disease. 10 million new people contract TB every year, 3 million go undiagnosed, and 1.8 million die from the disease.
“They’re the scourge of New York City, but on the other side of the world, rats have a different title – lifesaver.”
African Giant Pouched Rats, already used to detect land mines in Tanzania and Mozambique, are now being deployed to clear fields of unexploded mines in Cambodia, one of the most bombed and mined countries in the world.
“It takes a man with a metal detector up to four days to search an area the size of a tennis court for mines – but a rat can do it in 30 minutes.”
“While a lab technician would take up to four days to screen 100 samples for TB, a rat can get through them in only 20 minutes.”
For twenty years APOPO and the scent detection rats having been saving lives by detecting landmines and tuberculosis.
In 2015, landmines and explosive remnants of war caused 6,461 casualties. 78% were civilians, 38% children. We need to act now.
The Belgian non-governmental organization (NGO) which developed the program of land mine detecting rats, APOPO (Anti-Personnel Land mines Detection Product Development in English), was founded in 1997.
“I’ll tell you the truth . . . I never believed a rat could do that job. I thought rats were useless,” Soeun Prom says with a laugh. Prom began working with Apopo, in 2015.
These aren’t just any old pizza-addicted subway rats, though. The African giant-pouched rats, typically weigh between 2 and 3 pounds, and are highly intelligent with an acute sense of smell.
“They tend to be a little more social than what you normally think of with a rat, maybe because we start socializing with them when they’re so young. They’re inquisitive about people.”
Much of the giant-pouched rat’s advantage in finding mines has to do with that olfactory superiority – but they’re also well suited for the harsh, dry heat of sub-Saharan Africa, where they’re trained. The rats are so light, they won’t set off buried explosives, and unlike dogs, they can bond with multiple handlers at a time.
They’re also quick little workers, capable of clearing 2,000 square feet in 20 minutes, which could take a human as much as four days.
At the end of the first round of training, which lasts about two weeks, the rats need to be focused and unflappable, not at risk of trying to scurry away in the field. Some rats catch on quickly, others require a bit more encouragement. They also have their own strategies as they scamper through the field.
Weekends however are reserved for feasting: The rats get to pig out on avocados, tomatoes, dried fish, peanuts, chunks of watermelon, mango and corn.
He’d hoped his country could be cleared of mines by 2025, but he expects the task will take longer.
When rats find something, they scratch the ground. At that point, a team member will record that location, and search the area. If a mine is located, it’ll either be exploded on the spot, or removed from the earth and blown up in a safe area.
It’s dangerous work, but rewarding for the people who risk their lives to do it.