BY: JESSICA BEUKER
Sub-Saharan Africa, with its large deserts and deep valleys, is home to a diverse number of communities and villages. It is also home to the giant African pouched rat, a rodent that has become so ubiquitous in African countries that they are seen primarily as an important food source, or as nothing more than a pest. However, thanks to APOPO, a Belgian non-profit that’s been in operation since 1998, these rats are developing a new reputation.
HeroRATs are carefully trained by APOPO to use their exceptional noses to sniff out landmines. The rats can effectively search 200 sq. metres in 20 minutes, compared to the 25 hours that it would take a human using a mine detector.
HeroRATs are carefully trained by APOPO to use their exceptional noses to sniff out landmines.
The training works using click and scent conditioning. According to APOPO, a click sound is established and reinforced using a food reward. Once the rat learns that the click means food, it will have to search for the TNT scent to earn its reward. From the training centre, the rats are sent out to previously war-ravaged countries to help local communities. About $8,000 is needed to train each rat, but according to the Guardian, that cost is a lot cheaper than using human detectors.
Before the mines can be detected, the ground has to be prepared through the softening of soil and removal of trees, shrubs and grass. The HeroRATs will then search any suspected areas in half-metre lanes, usually working two at a time. Once a rat has indicated a mine, which is communicated through a fit of scratching, a metal detector is used to clear a safe lane to the spot. The mine is uncovered with gentle excavation and carefully disarmed.
The rats can effectively search 200 sq. metres in 20 minutes, compared to the 25 hours that it would take a human using a mine detector.
The average mine requires a weight of 11lbs or more to detonate. The heaviest male rats do not exceed 3.3lbs. Since the rats are nocturnal, and not used to such harsh sun conditions, sunscreen is applied to the rats’ ears in order to protect them from skin cancer. Once they are too old to work, or they lose interest, the rats are retired. According to Boredpanda, “no HeroRATs have died in the line of duty.”
According to APOPO, there are currently 56 countries and four territories around the world that are affected by landmines. These pose a barrier to development and economic growth. In 2013, there was a global average of nine mine-related casualties per day.