Step Aside Sniffer Dogs, These African Rats Detect Landmines And Tuberculosis

Alap Naik Desai

For quite some time, dogs have been deployed to detect landmines, explosives, drugs, and other contraband. These "sniffer" dogs have proven their worth in nearly all the locations they have been dispatched. However, they will soon be joined by an entirely new species. Rats in Africa, who have so far been hated for their obsession with wanton destruction of food and furniture, apart from being a carrier of diseases, are being trained to sniff out landmines and tuberculosis.

APOPO – which stands for Anti-Persoonsmijnen Ontmijnende Product Ontwikkeling in Dutch, or Anti-Personnel Landmines Detection Product Development in English – is an organization that trains and deploys rats. Named as HeroRATS, these rodents are deployed for detection of abandoned landmines as well as cases of tuberculosis, reported Irish Mirror.

The organization, founded in 1997 by Belgian rat-enthusiast Bart Weetjens, is partnered with the Tanzanian People's Defence Force and the Sokoine University of Agriculture in a city called Morogoro in the southern highlands of Tanzania, where they now maintain their headquarters and training facilities.

For the last decade, they have successfully bred and trained hundreds of rats that have been directly responsible for the discovery of over 1,500 buried-and-forgotten landmines across a vast patch of land measuring more than 240,000 square meters. in Tanzania alone. In war-torn Mozambique, these rats have successfully uncovered 6,693 land mines, 26,934 small arms and ammunition, and 1,087 bombs across 9,898,690 square meters. These sniffer rats are now active in Thailand, Angola, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, reported Scientific American.

Why rats? Strictly speaking, they aren't "true" rats. They belong to an entirely different family (Nesomyidae) from your regular house rat (Muridae). Growing to around 0.9 meters (3 feet) long – their tails make up half their length – and 1.4 kilograms (3.1 pounds) in weight, African giant pouched rats are truly humungous when compared to any other species of rats.

They're native to Sub-Saharan Africa, ranging from Senegal to Kenya and from Angola to Mozambique, where they live in communities of 20 or so. The rats rely on their keen senses of hearing and smell to make up for their relatively poor eyesight. However, apart from their evolved sense that make them a good candidate to sniff out landmines, there's another, more practical reason.

Being light, these little guys simply can't set off any landmine, even if they scurry directly over it. Besides, these rats are said to be quite intelligent, and can be easily trained to associate sounds and smells with various objects of varying threat levels.

As if working in dangerous and explosive situations wasn't enough, these rats have also proven helpful in detection of tuberculosis. About 54 rats are currently serving in 19 TB clinics in the Tanzanian city of Dar es Salaam. Since 2002, they've screened 226,931 samples and identified 5,594 TB patients.

[Image Credit | Scientific American]