Rats can save human lives

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.”

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