MAPUTO, Mozambique — Although rats are usually greeted with contempt and disgust, don’t be surprised if these small animals are received differently in Mozambique. A European NGO called Apopo has raised sufficient funds to deploy specially trained rodents to detect landmines in this war-torn country, an endeavor which has proven much more efficient than other previously employed methods to remove these dangerous weapons.
Rats possess the intelligence and the determination to consistently carryout many specific, repetitive tasks. Most importantly, they are small enough to indicate the location of the explosive without setting it off. With food as their reward, Apopo’s trained rats scratch at the ground’s surface after sniffing out a buried explosive device. According to the BBC, these rodents have investigated over 6 million square meters and discovered nearly 2,500 landmines. They have also helped remove over 13,000 small arms and ammunition.
A plethora of mines still linger under the Mozambique soil after the deadly civil war the country endured for over a decade. The conflict commenced two years after the country gained independence from Portugal in 1975 and claimed the lives of over a million citizens. However, the aftermath of the war continues to take its toll today, as old landmines are responsible for the deaths of 800 Mozambicans every month, as reported by the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Without rats and other trained animals, demining can be a cumbersome and dangerous process that often yields unimpressive results. Metal detectors have a limited range and many prove to be unreliable in third world countries. Another burdensome method involves large tank-like apparatuses that employ external robotic arms to extract explosives from the ground. However, considering these machines move slowly and take effort to operate, this process commonly yields more frustration than tangible results.
Consequently, millions of dollars have been invested in procuring more technologically innovative methods to improve demining around the globe. Before Apopo deployed Rats in Mozambique, the company looked into producing expensive, high tech solutions that involved thermal imaging and laser detectors.
However, Apopo’s rats have proven to be a more efficient and inexpensive alternative. Rats are plentiful throughout the continent and cost very little to feed and maintain. In addition, the rodents only require nine weeks of training and can cover vastly more square meters per hour than any human operated machine. Finally, rats’ sense of smell is more fine-tuned than metal detectors, instruments that force crewmen to dig at every instance of harmless metal buried in the ground. Consequently, more and more crewmen are vouching for the animals ability to demine.
“They are doing a great job,” Alberto Augusto, a leader of Mozambique’s demining institute, told BBC. “These are not normal rats. They are very special rats.”
The rodents success have individuals like Augusto dreaming big. The country hopes to be completely rid of these dangerous weapons by the end of this year.
If this goal is accomplished, Mozambique will finally fulfill it’s responsibility under the Ottawa Treaty, an international collaborative effort to eliminate the existence of landmines in war-torn countries.