Africa Rats race to defuse mines

Minefields are seldom cleared after conflicts have ended, remaining lethal for decades.

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Trained rat play

Trained rat

(Jay Caboz)
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Written by Michael Schmidt

The giant pouched rat has zoomed from zero to hero in the battle to rid the continent’s former war-zones of landmines.

Anti-tank mines, anti-personnel mines and cluster munitions are the dragon’s teeth of modern warfare.

Minefields are seldom cleared after conflicts have ended, remaining lethal for decades.

Standard mine-detection methods are costly and inefficient: one metal-detector operator will take about a week to clear 100m², while sniffer dogs are heavy enough to detonate a mine and can only bond with a single handler.

Rat hunting for mines play

Rat hunting for mines

(Jay Caboz)

 

Mozambique is infested by about 2 million mines and their ever-present danger is exacerbated by the fact that most minefields were not accurately mapped.

Faced with such a debilitating constraint on Mozambique’s ability to rebuild its infrastructure and peacetime agrarian economy, Dutch rat-whisperer Bart Weetjens identified the unique abilities of the giant pouched rats.

Rat trained to find mines play

Rat trained to find mines

(Jay Caboz)

 

Indigenous to Africa’s forest belt, they are intelligent, trainable, lightweight, and resistant to many endemic diseases.

More importantly they have the best olfactory senses of any mammal. Anti-Persoonsmijnen Ontmijnende Product Ontwikkeling (APOPO, www.apopo.org) was founded in 1997 in collaboration with the Sokoine University of Agriculture in Tanzania and European and US organisations, to train sniffer rats.

By 2006, 11 forest-belt African governments joined the "rat-race" signing an accord that preferred “HeroRats” for demining their shared borders.

Unexploded ordinance emit subtle trace scents that the rats are taught to distinguish from all other smells.

Rat hunting for mines play

Rat hunting for mines

(Jay Caboz)

 

“We don’t talk rat,” Weetjens jokes, “we have a clicker for animal training”.

HeroRats are rewarded with mashed banana and peanuts whenever they correctly scratch lightly for five seconds at the soil where a mine lies buried.

A human de-miner still has to dispose of the munitions, but APOPO had achieved its objective, because the rats cost a third of the price of dogs to train, enabling de-miners to reduce the standard clearance cost of US$2/m² by 25%.

High clearance speed is a huge advantage: in 2012 alone, the APOPO team of 47 rats cleared 2,111km² in Mozambique’s Gaza and Manica provinces, according to the Landmine & Cluster Munitions Monitor, at a cost of US$1,362,266.

By December 2014, the National Demining Institute (IND) was able to declare that eight provinces including Gaza and Manica were fully demined, with the few remaining minefields expected to be cleared by mid-2015.

Rats trained to find mines play

Rats trained to find mines

(Jay Caboz)

 

Firoz Alizada, spokesperson for the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, said that there was “no doubt that APOPO has been an important partner and its work in Mozambique has been a valuable contribution in bringing Mozambique close to be free from scourges of mines.”

The giant pouched rat, Cricetomysansorgei

Democratic Republic of Congo mammologist Prince Kaleme confirmed to Ogojiii the amazing sense of smell possessed by the 1 - 2kg giant pouched rat, its name derived from its hamster-like cheek pouches.

This ability has secured its use in sniffing out tuberculosis in five Tanzanian hospitals.

Often viewed as vermin, they unfortunately also wind up in the bush meat markets of West Africa and the Congo Basin.

What you need: a rat, a clicker and plenty of mashed banana and peanuts.

Rat hunting for mines play

Rat hunting for mines

(Jay Caboz)

 

The cost of mines

• The UN says mines cost as little as US$3 each to produce, but as much as US$1,000 each to remove – and kill up to 20,000 people every year across 78 countries.

• The Red Cross says that 27% of arable land in Libya is unusable because of World War II minefields, while 33% of Angolan territory is no-man’s-land because of its 9-million mines.

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