There are over 50 countries in the world that are contaminated with hidden, and in many case long forgotten, landmines. These barbarous, destructive and indiscriminate devices along with other explosive remnants of wars cause an untold misery to people, animals and the environment.
In 1997, a Belgian student at the University of Antwerp, Bart Weetjens, who had pet rats as a child, wondered if the incredible sense of smell of rodents and their innate ability to pick up new skills could be combined as a means to detect land mines. His subsequent work led, with other mine clearing projects, led to the formation of a non-governmental organisation called APOPO, who would train rats to work with land mine clearing teams in areas around the world where the detritus of war had blighted the environment.
APOPO stood for Anti-Persoonsmijnen Ontmijnende Product Ontwikkeling, which translates into English from Dutch as Anti-Personnel Landmines Removal Product Development.
It didn’t take long for them to be nicknamed ‘HeroRATs’.
The rats chosen were the Southern Giant Pouched Rat (Cricetomys ansorgei) a rodent native to east and southern Africa. It didn’t take long for them to be nicknamed ‘HeroRATs’.
Working with specially trained handlers the rats methodically scour the land harnessed to a linear string between two points. When they come across the scent of a mine they stop next to it and scratch the surface of the ground so the location of the mine can be marked. Metal detectors are then used to confirm the mine location and then de-mined by hand and destroyed.
The weight of the rats is too light to detonate pressure activated mines and in the past two decades they have helped eradicate over 107,836 land mines and pieces of unexploded ordinance(and counting) from countries such as Mozambique, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Angola, Colombia, Zimbabwe and Cambodia.
The land the demining teams of people and rats is estimated to have freed up an estimated 24 million square metres which has helped almost one million people be able to move freely around the landscape as they could before the wars that affected them cam along.
A second string in the bow of the HeroRATs is that their sense of smell has also been put to work by APOPO in helping sniff out tuberculosis in sputum samples in developing nations. A typical rat being able to check 100 samples in just 20 minutes in the field compared to a technician taking four days in a laboratory.