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.
Photo credit: APOPO's HeroRats
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