"Hero Rats" are bringing new hope to Africa as Tanzania-based NGO Apopo leads the way in using giant African pouched rats to detect landmines and tuberculosis—two of the top killers on the continent.
Since the program was launched in 2000, rats have been used to detect thousands of landmines, bombs, and small ammunitions and arms, and have been able to sniff out over 200,000 samples of tissue and blood for tuberculosis.
Mozambique, where Apopo has been using rats on the field since 2006, is one of the program's ongoing success stories.
Bart Weetjens, Apopo's founder said that the country's civil war, which ended in 1992, has left the landscape riddled with landmines that cost the lives of hundreds. Ever since he brought in his "hero rats" who scratch at the earth just enough to let bomb diffusers know where there is a mine, but not enough to detonate it, they have "cleared the country of 6,693 landmines, 29,934 small arms and ammunition, and 1,087 bombs. Mozambique is on track to be free of landmines by the year's end."
Next on Apopo's agenda is to use the rats to sniff out landmines in Angola, the third most mine-affected country in the world.
It's not just hidden bombs that the pouched rats are helping to sniff out. Apopo's hero rats have also been used as a superior alternative to time-consuming and inaccurate tuberculosis screening tests in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and Maputo, Mozambique.
Rats may seem like unlikely saviors amid Africa's landmine and health crises but to Weetjens, who said he kept rodent pets as a child, they make perfect sense. Pouched African rats are found locally and can be caught in the wild and trained easily. They are more cost-effective than training dogs and are also more easily transported to areas where they are needed. They are lighter and do not form bonds with their trainers.
Danielle Lee, an American biologist who spoke of using pouched African rats to detect bombs at the TED Conference in Vancouver, agrees with Weetjens about the usefulness of the rats' sense of smell and thinks the next step is to research and develop ways to breed the rats in captivity.
"By studying their biology, we can make better decisions on how to train them," she said.