Archive for October 14, 2010

AFRICA: Rats That Detect Landmines

The Real Rat Patrol

Last Father’s Day my wife and son gave me a rat, actually a bunch of rats. In lieu of a tie or DVD, they made a donation in my name to an outfit in Africa that trains rats to sniff out land mines – and tuberculosis (more on that later).

Started by Belgian Bart Weetjens, APOPO is a registered Belgian charity based in Tanzania. Weetjens says he got the idea for explosives-detecting rats from a Scientific American article about gerbils’ sensing ability.

Not these guys ...

The rodents APOPO uses are not just any rats but cat-sized Giant African Pouch Rats (Cricetomys gambianus). Like dogs the rats are trained to detect the explosives vapors emanating from landmines – even if they’re buried. And like dogs, the rats are given a food treat as a reward.

Unlike dogs, the rats are small (15 inches, three pounds), easily transportable and cheap. It costs about $2,000 to train a rat compared to $10,000 for a mine-sniffing dog. Rats are more resistant to tropical diseases. They also don’t imprint on humans like dogs do, so one handler can deal with many rats and a ran will tolerate several handlers or trainers.

Between 1999 and 2008, there were 73,576 casualties in 119 countries caused by landmines, improvised explosive devices or munitions left over from previous conflicts, according to Landmine Monitor. The group’s report says 17,867 of those people were killed and 51,711 were injured. The status of the remaining 3,998 is unknown.

Most of APOPO’s rats — known as HeroRATs — work in neighboring Mozambique where years of civil war have left thousands of landmines dotting the landscape, making some land inaccessible for agriculture and other forms of development. APOPO and the HeroRAT team have helped to return more than 1.7 million square meters of land to the population in Mozambique since the start of operations in the late 1990s.

So far in 2010, the rats have found 596 mines, 308 unexploded ordnance, and 6,205 small arms and ammunition. The group aims to make Mozambique’s Gaza Province landmine safe by 2014.

...but this little guy. (Photo: APOPO)

Mine-sniffing rats are also being trained by police in Colombia the most heavily mined country in Latin America. And honey bees are being studied by  the University of Montana and the Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico as land mine detectors.

The APOPO rats’ sensitivity is not limited to explosives. They can detect tuberculosis in the saliva submitted for testing by patients – and they can screen patients faster than a human technician in a lab. So far this year, the rats have identified more than 1,438 people with TB that were originally missed in hospital testing.

For those too young – or too old for that matter – to know the 1960s television series, “The Rat Patrol,” click here for some cultural intel (for a lengthier  discourse of the show’s canon — pun intended),  see the Wikipedia entry.


October 14, 2010 at 12:01 am 1 comment


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