Life-saving rats – Tanzania-based NGO Apopo trains giant African pouched rats to sniff out land mines and detect tuberculosis -- two scourges that have had a tremendously negative impact on the African landscape.
Clearing Mozambique – In 2006, Apopo started testing rats on the mine fields in Mozambique, a country that at that time was one of the worst affected by landmines, thanks mainly to a civil war that ended in 1992.
Almost mine-free – Since then, Apopo has cleared the country of 6,693 landmines, 29,934 small arms and ammunition, and 1,087 bombs. It is on track to clear Mozambique of landmines by the year's end.
Working with humans – Mine detection rats take nine months to a year to train. The rats are socialized when they are four-weeks-old so that they are comfortable working with humans.
For the love of bananas – The rats are then conditioned with clicker training, so that they associate the sound of a click with a reward (usually peanuts or bananas). They are then introduced to a target scent (TNT or positive TB samples).
Sandbox training – Mine-detection rats are then trained in a sandbox, where they are charged with sniffing out TNT-stuffed tea balls.
Testing their know-how – In the final stage of training, mine-detection rats demonstrate their abilities at a training field at Morgoro, Tanzania -- the second largest in the world. It has over 1,500 mines, over 14 types are used during different training stages.
Speedy work – After a rat detects a mine, a manual deminer extracts the device. A single rat can clear 200 square feet in under an hour. It will take a manual deminer working alone about 50 hours to clear the same space.
An affordable solution – Because rats are small, they are also cheaper to transport and store than dogs -- who are traditionally employed to sniff out mines. In Africa, they are a cheaper option, because they are plentiful and easy to train. Each Apopo rat costs about $7,600 to train (a third the price it costs to train a dog).
Stuck in the lab – Apopo also trains rats to sniff out TB. Currently, the NGO's rodents are screening TB samples in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and Maputo, Mozambique.
Going global – In addition to its work in Mozambique, Apopo has participated in mine-clearing projects in a number of countries, including Angola, Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam and Lao. Here, one of Apopo's training supervisors works with a Cambodian trainer.
Adopt a fuzzy friend – In order to raise funds, Apopo has launched an adopt-a-rat program, which allows participants to sponsor a 'hero rat'.