It takes a true visionary to see a Buddhist monk deploying a pack of giant rats as the solution to the devastating danger posed by landmines.
Every few hours, another person is killed or maimed by a landmine. Even in areas removed from active conflict, landmines are more than just distressing reminders of former bloodshed — they’re hidden hazards that terrorize populations and freeze development.
Identifying, unearthing and disarming these explosives is dangerous and daunting. Despite record clearances, more countries deployed anti-personnel mines last year than in any year since 2004.
But one social innovator has risen to the challenge — with the help of a few hundred friends. The innovator is the industrial engineer, Buddhist monk, and Ashoka Fellow Bart Weetjens.
His hundreds of friends are sub-Saharan Africa’s giant pouched rats. About three feet long and armed with a powerful sense of smell, these rats might just be humanity’s best hope for moving forward with confidence.
“Our rats save human lives, and therefore we call them HeroRATS,” said Weetjens, the founder of APOPO, a Dutch social enterprise that researches, develops, and disseminates detection rats technology for humanitarian purposes. Headquartered in the southern highlands of Tanzania, at the Sokoine University of Agriculture (SUA) campus in Morogoro, Weetjens and APOPO train rats through classical conditioning—think Pavlov and his dogs—to detect threats in countries with long landmine legacies.
In APOPO’s Mine Action Program, baby rats are removed from their litters as soon as their eyes open (usually four weeks after birth) and dropped into a rigorous training and socialization program. Rats are trained to detect the scent of TNT and indicate its presence to handlers in a lab setting before honing their skills in field tests.
Before taking their talents to active minefields, they must first meet International Mine Action Standards (IMAS) by passing an external accreditation exam supervised by the National Mine Action authority. The rats are never in any real danger; too light to trigger an explosion, they roam freely over charged land.
How do APOPO’s HeroRATs measure up to traditional minesweeping techniques? It’s no contest. Two HeroRATs, with human handlers in tow, can cover 300 square meters of land in a single hour. It would take a pair of deminers equipped with metal detectors a full two days to cover the same area.
And land release isn’t just faster with HeroRATs, it’s also less expensive — about 50 cents cheaper per square mile than the accepted industry standard. As the lone demining organization in Mozambique, HeroRATs have played a major role in clearing more than two million square meters of suspected minefields in the Gaza province, a rural area previously dotted with landmines.
Photo credit: APOPO's HeroRats
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