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Rats help clear landmines in Africa

Rats are being trained to hone their remarkable sense of smell, to sniff out deadly landmines in Mozambique and Tanzania. Belgian social enterprise company, Apopo has found a way to train African Pouched Rats to smell the TNT in mines. Since 1975 there have been more than one million landmine casualties around the world. And at least 20 per cent of the estimated 15,000-20,000 people who are killed or disabled each year by these deadly weapons are children, according to United Nations figures. Eighteen years since the civil war ended, there are still millions of mines in African soil. And now countries are beginning to realize that the mines are holding up development, stopping people growing crops, getting clean drinking water, building hospitals and starting businesses.

Rodent enthusiast, Bart Weetjens, realised that many African communities rely too much on foreign help to tackle many processes needed for their development, especially clearing mines.He has begun to train local people to use rats conditioned to link the smell of TNT to food, to hunt out landmines. The rats run along wires between two handlers, explained a BBC world news correspondent. And when they smell a landmine, they stop, sniff the ground and begin to dig. This signal lets the handlers know they have found a mine or some other explosive, which can then be taken out. In Mozambique, local people have given them the nickname, ‘Hero Rats’.

Rats are much faster than people with metal detectors and are not distracted, the organisation says. They are cheaper to keep than dogs and are easily passed between different handlers, so make sense also from a business and economic point of view. But training the rats and local people to work with them is costly and time-consuming, and the money only covers costs, so there are no profits to be had. The company has relied on research and development grants that may begin to dry up. So Apopo raises some cash through its website and its Hero Rat campaign. People and companies can pay to sponsor and name a rat. Mr Weetjens big plan for the future is to train the rats to detect a whole lot of other things, from finding smuggled drugs to medical screening. His company is already running trials in Tanzania using the rats to smell out TB in the saliva of sick patients. Mozambique's brutal civil war lasted more than 15 years and led to hundreds of thousands of deaths and left an estimated three million unexploded mines.


By Hayley Jarvis for SOS Children