Today’s Solutions: June 15, 2024

As a child, Bart Weetjens, from Belgium, bred rodents to sell to pet shops. Now he’s the founder and director of APOPO, an NGO operating from Tanzania that trains rats to detect landmines. APOPO’s team of mine-sleuthing rats is active in Mozambique, and will begin mine-detection operations in Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Colombia..

Carmel Wroth | Sept/Oct 2009 issue


Why shouldn’t we use advanced technology to detect landmines?

“Machines require batteries and maintenance, and you end up with a high technological level that won’t work in a tropical environment in a low-resource setting. High-tech devices—infrareds, robotics, multi-sensor platforms, ground-penetrating radar—constantly need experts around and are way too expensive. We can provide a detector that is low-tech and maintainable, and create local expertise in low-skilled operators.”
But why rats?
“When I realized in the 1990s that landmines form a structural barrier to development, I was looking for an appropriate detector. I found out scientists had researched using gerbils to detect explosives. I’m a big rodent lover and I had rats and mice throughout my youth, so I knew rats are very intelligent creatures and one of the most adaptable species. But I didn’t know then that rats can save human lives. At APOPO, we use an approach based on positive behavior reinforcements. Rats are happy performing repetitive tasks—once they know a trick, they like to do it endlessly for food. We socialize them when they are four weeks old. We expose them to all kinds of environments and teach them to trust humans.”

Isn’t it expensive and slow work to train rats?

“No. We can de-mine for 14 cents a square foot, which is 60 to 70 percent cheaper than with metal detectors. And using machines is extremely slow, as you will get a lot of false indications. A manual de-miner can do up to 60 square yards (50 square meters) in a day, while a rat can do that in 15 minutes. And the logistic advantage is huge. The animals don’t require a lot of attention and are easy to transport and train. It’s a very useful tool to speed up the detection of mines.”
 

Print this article
More of Today's Solutions

These 5 foods will help lift your mood all winter long

With the days becoming shorter and the weather colder, it’s not uncommon for people to start feeling emotionally drained. In fact, some 10 million ...

Read More

What is the “motherhood penalty” and how can we get rid of it?

When discussing the gender pay gap, the idea that women take more time off after the birth of the child tends to come up. ...

Read More

The Ocean Cleanup’s sunglasses fund even more cleanup missions

We at The Optimist Daily have been following The Ocean Cleanup project since its first plastic-capturing voyage back in 2019. From that point forward, ...

Read More

This app can save time and lives by diagnosing skin conditions

After a concerning brush with melanoma, where a lengthy test dangerously delayed her treatment, Susan Conover began her studies in skin diseases and dermatology. ...

Read More