How these rats detect landmines

Posted by Imogen on 14 March 2019

APOPO is a 20-year-old, non-governmental organisation that has successfully trained southern giant pouched rats to detect landmines. APOPO’s headquarters are in Tanzania, along with a training and breeding facility.

APOPO’s founder, Bart Weetjens came up with the idea as a combinaiton of two things. The first was his knowledge of rats, having owned them as pets. The second was from his studies that analysed the landmine problem in Sub-saharan Africa.

Weetjens had also read an article that had been published about gerbils that had been trained to detect explosives under laboratory conditions. His understanding of rats and their ability to be trained is what got the ball rolling.

APOPO is a Dutch acronym that translates into English as ‘Anti-Personnel Landmines Detection Product Development’. The NGO operates out of various countries affected by landmines, including Mozambique, Angola and Cambodia. It also has a presence in Zimbabwe and Columbia.

Throughout the world, there are over 60 countries that are riddled with landmines and other explosives left behind from war.

Innocent people are killed or seriously injured as a result of accidental detonation. The risk of landmines prevent communities from converting these areas into farmland, which inhibits people from generating a potential income.

APOPO have a team of scent detection rats, affectionately named heroRATS. At four weeks old the animals begin their training.

These animals are trained for 9 months to a year before being fully qualified for the job. The trainers are extremely proud of their animals and take very good care of them. The rats are also placed on a balanced, nutritional diet and are regularly exercised.

The animals are given playtime, extensive personal attention and weekly visits from a vet and onsite animal behaviourist. The animals are kept under a certain weight so as not to set off the landmines.

APOPO has a visitor’s center in Siem Reap, Cambodia. The center gives people the opportunity to learn about the history of conflict in Cambodia as well as the impact of landmines on local communities. You will be also able to meet and see the HeroRATS in action. Visitors can go on a guided tour lead by a mine action professional. The tour leaders each have first-hand experience of safe de-mining practices. The center also provides you with the opportunity to learn about APOPO as an organisation.



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The animals undergo an extensive training process, using positive reinforcement. A tea egg, containing TNT and essentially the scent of explosives will be placed somewhere for the rat to smell out. Once the egg has been located and the rat has interacted with it, the animal will hear a clicking sound. This sound is associated with food and during the training the rat will then return to the trainer to receive a tasty reward.

They are then trained in scent discrimination. This is when the rat distinguishes between a tea egg containing TNT and tea eggs not containing TNT. The rats are rewarded for interacting with the TNT-positive tea eggs.

The training then moves outdoors under different conditions. A harness is attached to the animal and the tea eggs are covered with soil. When a rat detects a tea egg, he or she will begin to scratch at the ground covering it, signaling that it has found something. After this, the rats enter into field training.

They are exposed to real, deactivated landmines. First the rat must detect mines that are placed on the surface of the field and then move along to mines that are placed deeper and in larger areas.

Finally all rats must pass a blind test before being sent for duty in a real minefield. The rat must find all the deactivated landmines in this test. The area spans between 200m2 and 400m2. If this is successfully done, the rat graduates to be a HeroRAT. Once graduated, the animals are then sent to a country affected by mines. APOPO prides itself on the fact that no rats have died from the mine detection work.

APOPO has also trained rats to detect TB in human sputum samples, for more information on this click here.

To see these extraordinary rodents in action, watch below.

If you are looking to donate to this organisation visit the website here. If you would like to enquire about becoming a volunteer, click here.

Image source: Instagram @herorats

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