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This NGO Trains Giant Rats to Clear Mine Fields

They've already blitzed 8.8 million square metres of land in Mozambique.

by James Rippingale
17 September 2014, 11:42am

De-mining NGO Apopo recruit and train local deminers from affected communities (All photos courtesy of Apopo)

Land mines, unexploded artillery shells and cluster munitions are every bit as effective during peacetime as they are during war. An estimated 72 countries around the world are still affected by them, and their proliferation throughout former war-torn countries continues to reap horrific consequences on rural communities from South East Asia to Angola.

“The socio-economic impact of land mines and unexploded munitions are huge. These things massively block economic development, and poor people in remote areas are continuing to suffer because of them,” says Tekimiti Gilbert, head of mine action for the de-mining NGO Apopo.

“The knowledge of a single mine in the area is enough to stop locals using that land out of fear. Most of these communities survive on subsistence farming. They’re dependant on that land for agriculture, animals, forestry – even getting firewood for their homes. And the further you move out of cities, the greater the land mine problem becomes.”

Fortuitously, Belgian-born Zen Buddhist and founder of Apopo, Bart Weetjens, has pioneered a new approach to detecting and eradicating land mines; he’s using rats – hulking, cat-sized rats who’ll go to insane lengths for a slice of avocado. And who, along with other de-mining NGOs and the British Government, are pushing to make Mozambique a mine-free country by late 2014.

“Some people are thinking of this idea as crazy,” he laughs in a heavy Belgian accent. “But for me, connecting the dots between rats and mine action was an alignment of the constellations.”

Weetjens’ mission to turn rodents into a highly skilled junta began at the age of 9, when he was given his first hamster, Goldie. Soon after, he began breeding a menagerie of rodents in his bedroom and selling the animals back to local pet shops in Antwerp for pocket money.

Much of his family lived and worked in Africa, and Weetjens developed a strong bond with the country. While ruminating on the continent’s unexploded land mine problem he was given a dossier of research by Antwerp University researcher Inne Ten Have. In there, he discovered a study by Biedermann and Weistein, in which they’d successfully managed to train gerbils to detect explosives by smell, using electro shock treatment.

“That way wasn’t our piece of cake,” he explains. “But I thought: ‘Hey, rats could do this! They’d love to do this!’”

A rat discovering a land mine in Mozambique

In 1999, working alongside Tanzania’s Sokoine University, he began to recruit and fanaticise an army of foot-long giant African pouched rats, establishing a test facility at the university and rewarding the rats with food every time they sniffed out a sample of explosives – first under lab conditions, and then later in a field chocked full of live land mines. Amazingly, the theory held up, and rats proved perfect candidates for land mine detection.

“Rats are extremely opportunistic. They’ll go for anything that delivers them food. And they delight in performing repetitive tasks. They literally work for peanuts… Biologically, they’re well prepared for [the job], because for all practical purposes they’re essentially blind. They’re also nocturnal, so they really rely on their sense of smell. And this sense can be greatly heightened during the training process.”

Rats are rewarded with food during their training and after a day's work

Alongside their senses, rats are present in every single continent across the globe, bar Antarctica, meaning they can be bred and trained on location for minimal costs and are resilient to the tropical diseases prevalent in land mine-affected countries. Most importantly, they won’t blow themselves or their handlers to pieces every time they step into the minefield because they’re too light to trigger mines.

The training process is rigorous, and full accreditation for use in the field by The International Mine Action Standards (IMAS) board is based on a 100 percent success rate in explosive detection. It takes around six months and £3,600 to train one Mine Detection Rat (MDR), but some learn a little faster than others.

“Ararat was one of my favourites,” Weetjens tells me. “I mean, this guy was a maverick. A very ambitious rat. Most go through a learning process, but he was just unreal – passed every stage without any error.”

Apopo rats being trained

In 2013, four years after Apopo began, they got the go-ahead from IMAS to take their work into the field. And after receiving £2.7 million in funding from various donors, they began working in nearby Mozambique, a country still riddled with land mines from the 1977 - 1992 civil war.

However, despite Apopo’s rats detecting and clearing 6,693 land mines from rural areas of Mozambique, ridding Maputo Province of mines – and with an estimated 1.6 million square metres of Manica, Sofala and Tete Provinces due to be declared mine-free later this year – Apopo’s methods are still met with resistance from potential donors among the international community. Weetjens believes this is down to the stigma around rats themselves.

“Since the Middle Ages, rats have received a bad image, and that’s because of the plague,” he says. “Wherever you go, it’s the same. At least the Chinese have a pragmatic approach to them – they eat them. But generally the perception is that they’re vermin.”

Conversely, villagers in the mine-affected areas around Mozambique openly welcomed the mine-detecting rodents – but only after Apopo managed to convince them that they weren’t from a pest eradication programme, which many locals believed them to be. “Yeah, we had a good laugh about that one,” recalls Weetjens. “But, pretty soon, the logic kicked in. And [the rats] simply performed far beyond the capability of machines.”

Rats are too light to trigger land mines, and are taught to scratch at them and wait for their trainers once they've discovered one.

By 2013, Mine Detection Rats had cleared 8.8 million square metres of land in Mozambique – around 1,260 full-sized football pitches – at a cost of just 70p per metre.

“One square metre of land cleared for the price of a bottle of cola. I mean, nobody can do that,” says Weetjens proudly. 

And these rats don’t muck about. A single giant African pouched rat is able to clear 20 square metres of ground in under an hour. Left to a manual de-miner with a metal detector, that same area would take over 50 hours. Apopo’s rats are also used to detect tuberculosis, and Weetjens’ dream is to keep developing the capabilities of his rat army.  

“We have a reverse technology that allows people at the bottom of the pyramid to tackle complex detection challenges with a tool that’s in harmony with their environment,” he enthuses. “Africa’s become an unregulated dump for European toxic waste… and the World Health Organisation believes that we may expect the biggest growth in cancer and diabetes in the third world.”

Clearly, there’s plenty of work at hand for Apopo’s rat army, and although the support of the international de-mining community may be tenuous, the rats have caused a dramatic shift in perception among the rural African communities where they’re deployed.

“It’s farmer’s logic,” says Weetjens. “If [local farmers] think pragmatically that this technique works and makes land safe to use, then they deploy it. And instead of going on the barbecue, the next rat they find enters into training.”


Some more stories about rats:

We Ate Rat Salad

Why Rats, Why Transvestites, Why Chanel?