King Ratby Brendon Bosworth / 13.05.2009
Rats have a bad rep. Bearers of bubonic plague, scourge of the sewers, most of us prefer to see their lifeless bodies hanging from the blood-drenched jaws of our pet cats. But that’s about to change. Over the past few years, a team of Belgian and Tanzanian researchers has been training African Giant Pouched Rats (Hero Rats as they’re known) to sniff out landmines in mine-riddled parts of Africa. Based in Tanzania, Bart Weetjens and his team have taught the rodents to identify TNT and UXO (unexploded ordnance, for those of you who didn’t serve time in the mag). And they’re doing the job at speeds that make regular de-mining techniques look redundant.
Once properly trained, one of these super-sized rodents can clear 100 square meters of a landmine field in 30 minutes, equivalent to two days work for a manual de-miner.
Buckled into a harness and leashed to a string connected to its two trainers, a Hero Rat will scurry around until it picks up the scent of an unexploded mine. The snappy rodent then scratches at the soil to indicate where the deadly device lies, and an expert human mine de-fuser steps in to seal the deal. Animal lovers relax – the rats aren’t heavy enough to detonate the explosives, so there’s no risk of the furry fellas being blown to smithereens.
APOPO, the company responsible for the project, currently has 57 accredited rats at their disposal. Last year alone, the team cleared 130,272 sqm of minefield in Mozambique, allowing residents to tread safe in the knowledge that their arms and legs will remain attached to their bodies.
These creatures don’t just have a nose for TNT. They’ve also been taught to smell out TB in sputum samples. And again, they’re far quicker than a scientist peering into the phlegmy mixture with a microscope. A Hero Rat can evaluate 40 TB samples in just 7 minutes – equal to what a skilled lab technician can do in two days.
Whether it’s smelling out mines or detecting disease, the bottom-feeders of the food chain have been elevated to legend status in our books.