Landmines and tuberculosis – not two subjects that pop up often in the same sentence. However, as unrelated as they seem, they share one significant common denominator. Both landmines and tuberculosis have widespread, negative consequences for many of Africa’s citizens. However, a little out-of-the-box thinking by a Belgian NGO is changing the face of landmine and tuberculosis detection, and saving hundreds of lives in the process.
Rats, like dogs have a superior sense of smell to humans. However, the rats have one up on dogs because their noses are just so much closer to the ground. Thus, in the case of landmines, a grid pattern will be marked off in a confirmed landmine zone and the rats will be sent into the field to systematically sniff out the bombs and alert the handlers by scratching at the earth. After the detection stage, bomb experts are released upon the land to deactivate the landmines.
When it comes to tuberculosis, the rats are used for second line screening of sputum samples. After the samples have been sent for lab testing, they are sent for rat testing, with the rats not only confirming the lab results for positive tb samples, but also picking up positive samples that the lab techs missed. Research is underway to see if the rats can be used as a frontline screening device for tb samples.
APOPO is a Belgian NGO and the brain child of Bart Weetjens. It comprises 200 full-time employees, including researchers, rat trainers, handlers and management. It also consists of a 300 strong team of giant African pouched rats aka cricetomys gambianus. This species is specifically chosen for a number of reasons, primarily its lifespan of between 5 and 8 years. Their longer lifespan means the initial investment put into training the rats is worth it, as they have approximately 5 working years in them.
APOPO has its headquarters in Morogoro, Tanzania. This is where the research happens and where the rats are bred and trained. It is primarily in Tanzania that the rats are being used for tb screening. The biggest landmine detection projects happen in Gaza province in Mozambique. Recently APOPO has been expanding these programs to Angola and on the Thai/Cambodian border.
The rats go through a 6 month training period which begins with socialisation – acclimatising them to different people and changing environments. They are then taught to associate a clicking noise with a food reward and finally to associate the smell of gunpowder (or tb) with the clicking noise. At the end of this process they become certified mine detection rats (MDR’s).
There are 68 countries around the world affected by landmines and/or explosive remnants today. This is a hindrance to development and the economic growth of these areas. The thing is that it requires a lot of resources to get these sites cleared and the rats are more efficient in more ways than one. They can cover the same area in an hour that a guy and his metal detector will cover in a day. It is also a much safer option as the rats are too small to detonate the bombs. Furthermore, the rats are able to sniff out bombs in metal casing and in plastic casing.
With regards to tuberculosis, the rats can ‘test’ 40 samples in 7 minutes while the labs take a day to process the same number.
The cherry on the cake is that the HeroRat programs provide employment to local communities.
APOPO was recently ranked 24th by The Global Journal in their top 100 NGO list, making them a very worthy of your donations, Alternatively you could adopt-a-rat or like their facebook page (and ours too while you’re at it 😉
Author’s note: This piece is based on a story which appeared in the April 2009 issue of Africa Geographic.