You might not think there would ever be a good reason for combining the words ‘hero’ and ‘rats’ together, unless maybe you’re just an over-enthusiastic fan of Remy the rat’s cooking feats in Pixar’s Ratatouille.
Since 1997 a non-profit organization operating under the acronym APOPO (short for the mouthful of a Dutch name Anti-Persoonsmijnen Ontmijnende Product Ontwikkeling or, as it’s known by its English translation, Anti-Personnel Landmine Detection Product Development) has been training African Giant Pouched rats to detect two things that humans have the ability to but just not nearly as efficiently: landmines and tuberculosis.
APOPO’s founder, Bart Weetjens, is a Belgian-born hamster, mouse and rat aficionado who had been journeying across Africa as a student and witnessed firsthand the ongoing destruction and casualties in some of the most landmine-infested regions in the world.
Looking into the feasibility of safely clearing these areas of undetonated explosives and making the land safe to use for locals not wanting to become one of the estimated 4000 people every year killed by landmines, he found a study focused on gerbils being able to recognize the presence of explosives by their scent.
Enter into the picture a lightweight, four-legged critter: the aforementioned giant pouched rat. These two-foot long rodents have several factors working for them when it comes to locating landmines despite having lousy eyesight, including a canine-esque sense of smell that can smeall as little as an ounce of explosive material, plus having a long lifespan of 8-9 years meaning they are well worth the $6,700 cost of training them.
Not to mention they’re clever enough to know that if they’re going to be asked to do life-risking work like scratch at the dirt on top of an explosive when they find it they should at least be given a hunk of banana as a reward and a decent retirement package when they decide to hang up their harness.
A huge advantage these rats have over humans carrying mine detectors or their canine compatriots is their body mass: the average landmine will explode if there’s 11 pounds (5 kilograms) of weight placed on it, but even with the word ‘giant’ in their name these rats usually weigh in at just under 3.5lbs (1.5kg).
They can also clear in 20 minutes an area that would take a team of their two-legged co-horts 25 hours to do, thanks to their laser-like focus on sniffing for explosive materials only; shrapnel or metallic scrap doesn’t set off false warnings to slow them down like it can a team armed with metal detectors.
In total, the detecting skills of the APOPO HeroRats have helped in finding over 105,000 landmines and the clearing of nearly 22 million square meters of land.
Now being used in other mine-laden countries like Cambodia (4930 landmines discovered and neutralized), Vietnam (four mobile teams have cleaned away almost 19,000 mines and ordnances) and Thailand (662 landmines cleared and an additional 934 explosive devices neutralized) not one of APOPO’s 111 mine detecting rats has been lost in the line of duty.
While technically the working conditions are not as dangerous, these rats also have APOPO-trained relatives working to save human lives in a laboratory setting, too, sniffing out tuberculosis in spit samples at an astonishing pace in areas like Tanzania and Mozambique.
In Tanzania the TB rats are now being used in 21 medical centers, and during the initial stages of rats being involved with the TB screening process in Mozambique they were responsible for a 44% increase in the detection of the disease. In total, over 11,000 additional cases of tuberculosis have been detected from over 400,000 samples screened.
Like their landmine-seeking brethren, the TB rats are trained to look for specific ‘red flags’; in the case of tuberculosis it’s the scent of molecules associated with the disease. Considering TB kills more than 40 times as many people in Africa a year compared to landmines, the potential for HeroRats to be a positive game changer in substantially lowering tuberculosis-related deaths is huge.
APOPO HeroRats all enjoy a peaceful retirement after their active field duty is over. Want to help keep these rats comfy during their golden years? Consider contributing a monthly adoption donation to APOPO here.
Watch APOPO founder Bart Weetjens explain the HeroRats concept during a 2010 TED Talks presentation.