SEATTLE, Washington — “Hero” is not typically the first word that most people would associate with rats. But for many in Africa, rats are nothing short of heroic. For the past 20 years, a Belgian nonprofit called APOPO has been training rats in five African nations to find undetected landmines and tuberculosis (TB). These HeroRats are saving lives by working to rid these countries of tuberculosis and landmines so that global health and development can get back on track.
Landmine Detection Training
Detecting these explosives with metal detectors is a slow and dangerous process for human volunteers. Other animals that have been trained to detect these weapons are often not native to the areas where they are needed and are difficult and expensive to transport.
In 1995, Bart Weetjens looked at his pet rat and saw a solution to the landmine detection problem. Rats have an amazing sense of smell and they do not weigh enough to set off underground explosives. Furthermore, they can cover in 20 minutes the amount of land that it would take a human four days to cover. So, Bart Weetjens founded APOPO in November 1997. Since its foundation, APOPO and its HeroRats have helped clear more than 13,200 mines in Mozambique, Angola and Tanzania. However, progress like this does not come without a lot of hard work and hours of training.
First, the wild African rodents must learn to assimilate to life around humans. The only way to do this is to raise them in training facilities from infancy. These rats also do not respond to human language. So, they must be trained to respond to click commands. They then learn how to sniff for mines in the field while attached to a rope grid, scratching at the ground where they smell explosives. The whole process takes about nine months. It is worth it to be able to free the land of dangerous explosives and free people from the fear of walking or building on this land.
TB Detection Training
Just as in landmine detection training, TB sniffing HeroRats must also be socialized to humans from infancy. These rats also learn clicker-commands. Instead of being sent out into the field, TB rats do their work in the lab. A TB-detection rat can examine 50 samples in eight minutes. It would take a lab technician almost an entire day to test this many samples.
APOPO only began its TB rat program in 2008, but since then tremendous progress has been made in Tanzania, Mozambique and Ethiopia. For example, TB HeroRats work at 21 medical centers in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Seventy-five percent of all TB samples are double-checked by rats in Maputo, Mozambique. The rats found 764 of these samples to be positive though they had been previously labeled as negative.
The work these HeroRats are doing is saving lives in Africa every day. This innovative solution to the decades-long problems of landmines and tuberculosis in African countries is the type of work that warrants the title of “hero,” even for a rodent.
– Ryley Bright