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THOMPSON: The HeroRATS of Africa sniff out landmines

February 14, 2017 - 12:06 PM

 


OPINION


Almost every week, my older brother, Clark, emails me some offbeat story or photo he's found surfing the Internet. Sometimes funny and often incredible, I usually marvel at his finds and acknowledge them with a simple but sincere thank you.

Last week, he sent me some captioned photos of rats sniffing out landmines in the war-torn Central African Republic. Never a real rodent fan, Clark had to admit this was good rat public relations. It piqued my interest enough to do some research and I found out these rats also diagnose disease. Now - and I don't think I've ever written this - I'm a rat fan.

Obviously these are not ordinary rats. They are Gambian pouched rats - members of the Muroidea super-family that includes hamsters, mice, and voles among nearly 1,400 other rodent cousins.

The pouches refer to their cheeks, great for packing away a variety of their favourite fruits and nuts, though they are omnivorous. They usually weigh no more than three pounds with eyesight so bad that members of the opposite sex always look good. But, these rats have better noses than a Bloodhound. 

Typically, landmines need about 11 pounds of pressure to detonate...trouble for humans...and even for dogs, long the animal of choice in finding landmines without exploding them. The rodents have been on the job for nearly two decades and the results are impressive to say the least.

These - so-called HeroRATs - have discovered more than 104,000 land mines from Mozambique to Cambodia. The rats are responsible - along with the human de-miners - for making more than 5,000 acres of war-plagued land safe again.

How did all this start? Well, Bart Weetjens, a Belgian student had long had rats for pets growing up in Antwerp. He knew they had highly developed olfactory skills, and as a humanitarian, he thought they could be trained to detect land mines.

He founded a not-for-profit in Belgium called APOPO in 1997. It is an acronym that in English translates as Anti-Personnel Landmines Detection Product Development.  The trainers rely on operant conditioning, using a combination of click training and food rewarding.

Land mines are in 64 countries worldwide, and in 2015 killed and maimed 6,461, according to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. The group also reported that last year was the third straight year that funding for landmine removal dropped...this time by 25 percent.

APOPO moved its headquarters from Antwerp to Morogoro, Tanzania in 2000, largely because of its affiliation with Sokoine University of Agriculture and the Tanzanian People's Defence Force. The group trains the rats, and conducts rat-related research and development programs.

The training starts at weaning and takes about nine months. Most rats detect mines for about five years before retiring with not a worry for the remainder of their lives. Most rats live to be eight or nine years old. Like most rats, these rodents are nocturnal, which means they are docile and easy to manage during their workday.

And that workday consists of maneuvering throughout a mined area wearing a wired harness that allows them freedom of movement. Their sensitive little noses a couple inches from the ground and constantly twitching, the rats are trained to find trinitrotoluene (TNT), the chemical explosive component of virtually all landmines. 

Their handlers mark with small flags the mines the rats detect, and a human crew comes by at day's end with a small charge that detonates the mines from a safe distance. The rats work five days a week...weekends off. 

One should note that rats aren't putting dogs out of the mine detecting business. Indeed, dogs and rats are complementary. Dogs cover more ground quickly and are used in larger mined areas...and rats in smaller densely populated mine fields. However, rats are 25-30 percent less expensive to train and feed.

It's impressive, too, that not a single rat has ever died from a landmine in the past 20 years. The rats are so revered that they are well fed throughout the week - mostly bananas and peanuts - and on weekends get special treats...grains, nuts, vegetables, fruits, fish and insects.

The rats are well cared for...with regular veterinarian visits and comfortable free-ranging cages for homes. Also, the rats are accustomed to human handling early on - usually six weeks old - and don't mind human touch. In fact, in hot climates the handlers often slather sun block on their little co-workers to ensure they aren't sunburned.

If the rat story ended here...it would still amount to a rat PR coup, and start to make up for that whole ‘Black Death’ thing in the 14th century. But, the story doesn't end here. The research and development folks at APOPO in Tanzania started training the rats to sniff out Tuberculosis.

Tuberculosis (TB) is one of the world's most infectious disease killers affecting nine million people each year, with another estimated 3 million going undiagnosed, and more than 1.5 million deaths. Slow, inaccurate detection is a problem to be sure, with over-worked and under-funded government labs throughout Africa often miss-diagnosing or simply missing patient samples.

APOPO collects TB sputum samples from clinics, places them in rows of ten in the rat testing cages, and the rats start sniffing. Rats without fail sniff each sample in the row, and when the come to a positive sample, they sniff longer...a full four seconds.

They are more accurate by far than conventional lab testing...some 44 percent better than previous testing in Maputo, the capital and largest city in Mozambique. Plus, what takes a human two days to detect; a rat can finish in just 20 minutes. The reward for the rat...a great meal of banana and nut pulp. The reward for mankind...thousands of human lives saved each year.

Clearly, we need to change our lexicon...and make rats more, well, worthy of our worship. These little guys and gals are heroes. I'm close to displaying a bumper sticker on my vehicle that says “I love my rat.”

As a non-profit, APOPO relies on humanitarian donations from individuals and occasional project funding grants from organizations like the United Nations. Also, you can adopt or even gift a rat...a perfect gift for that special someone on Valentine's Day?

Seriously, last week you could adopt Nisay, a female land mine detecting rat, for $7 a month. Nisay - born in Tanzania - is now in Siem Reap, Cambodia working the normal five-day-a-week rat race. She is, according to APOPO's website, both "cheeky and enthusiastic." She had me at cheeky.

Nisay's photo, as well as other adoptable rats, can be found at support.apopo.org. As I said, I love my rat.

Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines.


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