Trained rats are assuming the daunting task, customarily undertaken by dogs, of detecting unexploded land mines. A Tanzanian-based non-profit, APOPO, began training and using the African Giant Pouched rat in response to the global landmine problem. Rats are currently clearing land mine fields in Mozambique, where unexploded weapons remain from conflicts in the 1960's, 70's and 90's.
The project will eventually clear over 3.7 million square miles by 2013, opening an immense--previously unusable--new area to development.
Using rats for this operation offers lesser developed nations some specific advantages.
- Rats are lighter than dogs, so they are less apt to trigger an unintended landmine explosion. The African Giant Pouched rats used by APOPO are larger than many species of rat, however. (see video above)
- Rats are biologically well equipped for smelling. Due to their stature, their noses are closer to the ground than are dogs.
- Because they are indigenous to nearly every area plagued by the landmine problem, they are more resistant to local diseases.
- Rats are less expensive to train and maintain than dogs.
- Unlike dogs, who tend to bond with a single handler, rats transfer easily and work well with different handlers.
They do present a few disadvantages. Due to their smaller size, it takes rats longer to cover a designated area. It is also more difficult to train the rats to sniff in a defined pattern, although trainers have developed effective training methods.
How do the rats work? As reported in MediaGlobal, a land-clearing operation looks like this:
"The rats wear harnesses attached to a wire held on either end by a handler. The rats then run up and down the attached wire, and each time the rat reaches the end of the wire, the handlers move slightly in one direction, until the rat has meticulously inspected the entire section. The rats are trained to detect the smell of TNT, and to start scratching and digging when they find something. They are then called over by their handlers and given a tasty reward, and the mine can be removed."
The video at the top of this page shows the low-tech but very effective process in action.
Experts don't expect rats to replace the role that dogs play. Rather, they see the new use of rats as a "complementary tool" in the effort to free the world of land mines in an efficient and cost-effective way.