When most people think of a rat, we imagine a disgusting little creature rummaging through the streets of New York, at least I know I do. I know there have been Disney movies, TV shows, and even articles done to try to eliminate rats from having an awful name, but they still are one of my least favorite type of animals. It wasn’t until recently that I heard about the works of rats in Africa and I was excited and willing to give rats the second chance they deserve. In Africa, hidden landmines kill thousands, yes thousands, of people each and every year. The landmines were placed during World War II. During the war, each side used landmines to impede the enemy’s progress. While it is unknown how many mines were used throughout North Africa, many of the mines are still operational and pose a risk to local populations. But, Bart Weetjens, created an unthinkable process to eliminate the landmine problem by using rats.
Part of the APOPO, which stands for Anti-Persoonsmijnen Ontmijnende Product Ontwikkeling in Dutch or Anti-Personnel Landmines Detection Product Development in English, these rats are saving thousands of lives.
The rats typically work Monday through Friday, then rest and play on the weekends. They only work for a few short hours each day too.
But they can clear two hundred square meters in just 20 minutes. It would take humans with metal detectors five days to cover the same area.
They are absolutely perfect for the job. They are small enough that they don’t set off the landmine, but large enough that their trainers can spot them in the fields too.
Since 2000, they have found over 9,000 buried land mines and bombs all across Tanzania and Mozambique. They’ve also found thousands of small arms and ammunition stashed in the ground.
According to the landmine monitor, there was still a global average of 9 casualties per day in 2013, including many innocent women and children.
Detection of landmines is however a complicated, dangerous, costly, and time-consuming process and many developing countries lack the resources to properly commit to the task.
The rats have a very sensitive sense of smell. The rats can smell TNT in low concentrations and even when it’s buried under the ground.
The locations that are indicated by the rats, by scratching on the floor, are followed up by a manual de-mining team, who detects and destroys the mines.
The rats normally live for up to 8 years, but are usually done working in the fields by the time they are 4-5 years old.
They live out the rest of their days as heroes, munching on avocados, apples and bananas, and being loved by their handlers. Each rat is assigned 1-2 handlers in their lifetime, so they create a bond that only they would understand, spending years working together. So once the rat decides to retire, they are still loved and nurtured.