Most people view rats as nothing more than pests, but one organization regards the critters as heroes. APOPO, an African-based non-profit, trains African Giant Pouched Rats to sniff out unexploded landmines. Organizers hope the rodents, or HeroRATS, will eventually be deployed across the globe as a cost-effective method to safely and efficiently detect and detonate hidden landmines.
Founder Bart Weegens began the HeroRAT project in Belgium with funding from the Belgian Directorate for International Cooperation. After successfully demonstrating the rats’ abilities to detect landmines, the project moved to Tanzania’s Sokoine University of Agriculture. Rats are currently only sniffing out landmines in Mozambique, but negotiations are underway to expand the project into Zambia, Congo and Angola.
Rats are ideal candidates for detecting landmines because they are easily trained, possess superior senses of smell and are too light to actually detonate the explosives themselves. Plus, they’re much cheaper than traditional landmine-detection methods. In an unrelated benefit, the rats can also identify the presence of tuberculosis just by sniffing mucus.
In order to learn how to sniff out mines, rats are trained from a young age to associate the smell of explosives with receiving a treat (usually a piece of banana or a peanut). Once they can successfully detect mines, rats are harnessed and attached to a long string being held at both ends by trainers. Rats move along the line, sniffing at the ground. If a rat detects explosives, it sits still and scratches itself. Soil samples can also be brought to the rats. If a rat does detect explosives in the ground, the mines are safely detonated by humans.
While discovering landmine locations is certainly important to prevent human casualties, the process has implications for the earth, too. If landmines are suspected to be present in a certain area, the land must be abandoned, which oftentimes leads people to farm or carry out their ways of life on fragile or marginal areas.