Today’s Solutions: October 22, 2021

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

FDA takes steps to authorize over-the-counter hearing aids

A new policy from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) plans to make hearing aids more accessible and affordable in the US. The new policy will make hearing devices available over-the-counter as early as next ... Read More

California grants leatherback sea turtles further protection

For decades, the population of the great Pacific leatherback turtle off the California coast has declined by 5.6 percent per year. To address this devastating loss, California’s Fish and Game Commission recently voted to list ... Read More

This crisis alert app provides crucial information to residents of Kabul

As conditions in Kabul continue to worsen due to the Taliban takeover, residents of the Afghan capital have been struggling to get accurate real-time information about what’s happening in the city. Three and a half ... Read More

World record broken for coldest temperature ever recorded

With our current knowledge of how temperature works there is no upper limit, this means materials can keep getting hotter and hotter to no end. This is not the case for lower temperatures, with the ... Read More

The scientific power of live music

We’re all familiar with the sense of wonder and joy we experience when we hear a song or piece of music we love, but there’s something even more magical about hearing that song performed live. ... Read More

5 Healthy cooking oils for a plant-based diet

Finding the right oil for your diet is a crucial part of maintaining your health—and is especially important for those who stick to a vegan diet. To minimize some of the confusion you may face ... Read More