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An Army of Giant Rats Unearth Landmines in Africa

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Last year alone, 36 HeroRATs and 14 locally-trained handlers cleared nearly 800,000 square meters of land, safely destroying 861 landmines, 373 items of unexploded ordnance (UXO), 6,216 small arms and ammunitions (SAA), and one cluster bomb RBK-250-275. By the end of this year, APOPO hopes to clear an additional two million square meters of land.

In 2010, the Thailand Mine Action Centre (TMAC) asked APOPO to conduct land release surveys along its Cambodian border, in partnership with the Thai NGO Peace Road Organization (PRO). Ten weeks of sweeps uncovered 165 anti-personnel mines and 17 anti-tank mines. APOPO will maintain a presence in Thailand to assist the country’s compliance with the 2018 AP Mine Ban Convention (APMBC) deadline.

Rodents have always been more than vermin for Weetjens. As a boy, he raised and cared for rats, mice, hamsters, gerbils, and squirrels, and lovingly describes them today as “very nice, sociable, intelligent animals.” Other stakeholders needed convincing—some people, including at least one current employee, have even mistaken APOPO for a pest control service.

“In the beginning it was really tough,” Weetjens recalled. “Everywhere I went to apply for funding, we were just laughed at. Institutions were actually very reluctant toward such an approach. The reason (for my perseverance) why was clear, obvious. I dreamt of a better world; as long as these mines are there, people just can’t build a normal life.”

But Weetjens faith in rats has paid off in more ways than bomb sniffing: HeroRATS’ impressive olfactory sense can save lives in other ways.

Rats Help TB Patients, Too

In Tanzania, rats are also used in second-line health screenings, detecting tuberculosis-positive patients who were initially missed by microscopy tests by recognizing the pathogenic bacteria in human sputum samples. To date, HeroRATs have increased detection rates by about 43 percent, positively identified more than 2,200 tuberculosis patients through second-line screening, while preventing the contraction of nearly 23,000 new cases by reducing the likelihood of person-to-person transmission.

There may be even more applications for these misunderstood rodents; but Weetjens says it will take more than dollars. While funding for landmine action and victim assistance reached an all-time high of $637 million in 2010, only a fraction of that is dedicated to supporting survivors.

And it will still take hundreds of years for global land release. Even more reason to believe in Weetjen’s locally-resourced and environmentally sustainable rat pack.

This post is by John Converse Townsend and was originally posted on Changemakers’ Ideas ExChange blog.


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Photo credit: APOPO's HeroRats

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5:44PM PST on Jan 6, 2012

Yay for herorats! It's just another example of how animals save humans again.

3:03PM PST on Dec 7, 2011

Sorry, but this isn't a new idea. There was a NOVA or National Geographic special about this a few years ago about rats finding mines in Africa. Too bad they still have to work at taking care of man's efforts to kill other men.

10:05AM PST on Dec 7, 2011

Great news and the rats are not harmed!:))) Thank you for sharing.

6:13PM PST on Dec 6, 2011

From the title of this article, I though Rush Limbaugh, Donald Trump and Newt Gingrich were finally doing something of value with their time. (Sorry rats - didn't mean to disparage your species.)

5:28PM PST on Dec 6, 2011

I love rats, it goes to show how clever and adaptable they are, now they even need to get people out of their self induced explosive problems.

4:28PM PST on Dec 6, 2011

Good to know. Thanks for sharing.

2:22PM PST on Dec 6, 2011

What a neat way to deal with landmines! I'm glad that they're not actually in danger of blowing up!

12:41PM PST on Dec 6, 2011

What a great story. And what an insight to use an animal that is light enough to not detonate the mines. Mines are such an immoral weapon. People who manufacture them or plant them are going against all that is Christian.

10:43AM PST on Dec 6, 2011

These rats are more useful than some/most people.......................................

8:57AM PST on Dec 6, 2011

BRILLIANT!!! I've always hated rats to the point of having nightmares about them.

Now my dreams will change into hope that more giant rats may be trained for land mines and for detecting health problems in people.

Yikes....I'll try to embrace them.

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