The Highly Trained Mine Detecting Rats of APOPO
We’re slightly ashamed to admit that when we first heard about the APOPO mine detecting Giant Pouched Rats our thoughts were a trifle messy. We imagined someone throwing small cubes of cheese across a suspect field and then letting cages of huge hungry rats loose with suitably explosive results. Although we’re pretty sure our method would work (if the giant pouched rats are giant enough), reality is a lot stranger than our imagination and much more humane.
APOPO (Anti-Persoonsmijnen Ontmijnende Product Ontwikkeling) is a Belgian non-governmental organisation which trains rats to detect landmines and tuberculosis using their incredible sense of smell. It was started by Bart Weetjens who kept pets rats as a boy and came up with the idea when he was a student at the University of Antwerp. It showed such promise that in 1997 he managed to get government funding to start it up properly and it has taken off from there.
It costs around €6000 to train each rat and training takes about nine months. Due to the considerable financial investment, rats have to pass a series of tests before becoming accredited mine detectors to International Mine Action Standards (and presumably being issued with a certificate to hang on the wall of their burrow).
Once trained they are known as HeroRATs, although sadly there is no superhero rat costume complete with little cape. Rather than finding landmines in any terminal sense, they are not heavy enough to detonate them and simply mark the location by scratching. They have a working life of up to five years before enjoying a long and happy retirement.
It may seem completely mad, but the furry little HeroRATs are incredibly good at their job. They are very accurate and much quicker than other methods as well as being easy to look after and tranport to remote locations. As you can imagine, they get sent to some of the world’s most difficult countries to detect landmines or tuberculosis, Vietnam, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Angola and Mozambique just to name a few.
Like many organisations of this sort, APOPO relies on a variety of funding sources as well as public donations. If you are looking for a good cause to support and fancy helping rats to save lives you can donate or even adopt a HeroRAT on their website: https://www.apopo.org/en