Beneficiary guest blog: APOPO— Training Rats to Save Lives
20 May 2019
APOPO is a global non-profit with Belgian roots, that researches, develops, and implements scent detection technology to solve global humanitarian issues. For over 20 years APOPO’s scent detection rats, nicknamed HeroRATs, have been detecting landmines and tuberculosis in affected countries around the world. The rats are trained through clicker/reward methods, receiving tasty food treats when they identify the smell of explosives or tuberculosis. They are never harmed because they are too light to actually set off any landmines and are cared for under strict animal welfare guidelines.
The organization has programs in Angola and Cambodia that clear minefields and is preparing operations in Zimbabwe and Colombia. APOPO also detects tuberculosis in Tanzania, Mozambique and most recently Ethiopia. APOPO’s operational headquarters, training and R&D center is based in Tanzania.
The global landmine and ERW problem
Leftover landmines and explosives currently threaten almost a third of the world’s countries. They remain active and dangerous long after hostilities end; causing accidents, inflicting terror, and hampering the development of vulnerable communities. In 2017, landmines and explosive remnants of war caused 7,239 casualties, of which 87% were civilians and almost half of those children.
Landmines and ERW also hamper economic recovery and development in war damaged areas. Villages are cut off from basic necessities such as water supplies, essential travel routes and are prevented from using fertile land for the cultivation of crops, grazing livestock, or development.
APOPO’s landmine detection rats are very quick at finding landmines, making them a perfect tool to speed up detection and clearance. When integrated into conventional mine clearance methods, such as survey, brush cutting machines, and human deminers with metal detectors, the HeroRATs are proven to significantly speed up landmine detection, helping return safe land to vulnerable communities as quickly and cost-effectively as possible.
The people APOPO helps
“So much violence, and hatred. We fled for our lives. After the conflict ended in 2002, all we wanted was to go back home to our normal lives. Instead when we returned, we found landmines everywhere, initially buried by the Angolan Armed Forces to defend the village of Quitexe. You’d think the war was painful enough, yet we continued living in fear of injury and death until APOPO came to our village to remove the landmines that had been planted to protect us.”
Initially Luisa was very puzzled when she saw APOPO’s HeroRATs as they were different rats than the ones she knew. Also, they were on leashes and walking back and forth in boxes on the minefield scratching at the surface when they found a landmine.
Areas suspected of landmines have often not been touched for decades, they are often overgrown and inaccessible. Ground preparation machines improve mine clearance by softening the soil, neutralizing tripwires and clearing small trees, bush, shrubs and grass. Then manual deminers go and create safe lanes to provide access to minefields. They are a meter wide and are prepared by deminers with metal detectors. Enter the HeroRATs.
Because they only detect the scent of explosives and ignore scrap metal – one HeroRAT can search an area the size of a tennis court in 30 minutes – this could take a manual deminer with a metal detector up to four days (depending on the levels of scrap metal present). When a HeroRAT indicates the presence of explosives, a deminer with a metal detector arrives to carefully excavate the marked position and confirm if a landmine is present. It is then safely removed and demolished at a later time.
After the landmines and other explosives are cleared, APOPO returns safe land to communities to use productively and without further fear of injury or death.
“I only knew rats as destructive pests and when they ate our crops or dug into food reserves this made me angry. I had never imagined rats could save our lives!” said Luisa.
For Luisa, the future she dreams of is simple: Angola to be cleared of landmines. This can only become a reality with support and funding to ensure APOPO and the HeroRATs can continue making life safer for the people of Angola and Cambodia, one day at a time.