These rats save lives
These rats save lives
BY : BRYONY RHEAM
Caption : Each rat is assigned its own trainer, who spends about half an hour a day five days a week getting the rats ready to become not just a normal rat, but a HeroRAT!
Source : APOPO
In many African countries, the effects of civil war continue to be felt long after ceasefires are declared and peace treaties made. In Angola, Tanzania and Mozambique, for example, the existence of many thousands of unexploded landmines and UXOs (unexploded ordinances) has prevented development and reconstruction in many places.
Landmines and UXOs have also seriously hampered access to basics such as clean water supplies, since local people fear moving away from their settlements or clearing new pieces of land. Landmines continue to kill thousands of people; as recently as 2013, they were responsible for at least nine casualties a day.
APOPO (Anti-Persoonmiynen Ontmijnende Product Ontwikkeling or Anti-Personnel Landmines Detection Product Development) was established in Tanzania, the brainchild of Bart Weetjns, a Belgian, who, during his studies at the University of Antwerp, first considered the idea of training rats to detect landmines.
The rats in question are the Gambian or African giant pouched rats (Cricetomys gambianus). Calm, docile and easy to train, they are large and easily seen when searching for landmines. Being indigenous to Africa, the rats are easy to feed and cheap to maintain, ideal for the poor communities within which they work. Contrary to popular opinion, these rats are intelligent, sociable creatures and, far from spreading disease, can be instrumental in the fight against illnesses such as tuberculosis.
Although the giant pouched rat has very poor eyesight, it has a well-developed olfactory system and can use this refined sense of smell to communicate over long distances. It can detect TNT explosives some 15-20cm underground, making it ideal in the search for unexploded landmines.
The rats are trained through a conditioning process. After being weaned, they are trained to respond to a clicking sound by rewarding them with bananas and nuts. They are then trained to recognise a target scent – in the case of landmines it is TNT; in that of tuberculosis it is a bouquet odour particular to the disease. Each rat is assigned its own trainer, who spends about half an hour a day five days a week getting the rats ready to become not just a normal rat, but a HeroRAT!
APOPO provides a sustainable, locally sourced and cost-effective solution to the problem of mine clearance, something which is otherwise a costly and lengthy affair. Normally, deminers need to investigate every single alert that comes to their attention – which may well be an old piece of metal or even a coin. The rats, who are too light to set off an explosion, are quick to detect a landmine and alert the trainer; the deminers then move in to clear it.
Tuberculosis is the second leading cause of death in Africa after HIV; nine million new cases are diagnosed every year. The treatment of TB is not difficult and in most cases it is offered free of charge. However, it is usually detected through microscopy, which is a slow process and one in which 20-80% of positive cases can be missed.
HeroRATs are trained to identify the particular smell of tuberculosis and the findings are confirmed with a concentrated smear micropsy. Again, the unique thing about the use of rats is that local people can be trained so that the community is not reliant on expensive expertise.
Currently APOPO is looking into the use of HeroRATs to detect salmonella, contraband tobacco and the location of victims lost under collapsed structures. All this in return for rewards of avocados and nuts; the HeroRATs are well worth their weight in gold.