Rats may not be the cutest and cuddly rodents around, but they are very helpful, especially Giant African Pouch Rats. Headquartered in Belgium is the Anti-Personnel Landmine Detection Product Development (APOPO), a non-profit organization founded by Bart Weetjens nearly 2 decades ago that researches, develops, and deploys detection rat technology for humanitarian purposes. APOPO has been using rats to aid in the detection of landmines and tuberculosis (TB) in areas that are heavily affected by these issues. Although these Giant Pouch Rats have poor sight, their strong sense of smell and quick movement is what really makes everything possible.
These rats are able to detect the landmines simply by sniffing out the explosives within them. Landmine detection is also a rather slow process for humans due to the danger that they may detonate upon stepping on them. For these 3.5-pound critters, detonation is not a worry at all though because most landmines detonate once 11 pounds of pressure is applied. This makes it possible for the rat to move wherever necessary and clear a space of 2,000 square feet in 20 minutes, which could take up to three days for two people to complete. According to APOPO, these rats have detected over 105 thousand explosives in the form of landmines and unexploded ordinances throughout the regions of Tanzania, Mozambique, Angola, Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam and Lao PDR. It can also be noted that none of these Giant Pouch Rats have been killed by an explosive while searching.
The process in which these rats detect tuberculosis is very similar to how they search for landmines. Those who are being tested provide a saliva sample, which is then sniffed by a rat that is trained to detect the infectious disease. Of the approximately 405 thousand samples that have been screened in Morogoro, Dar es Salaam, and Maputo thus far, 11,177 tuberculosis cases have been detected and 81,390 potential cases have been stopped.
Giant Pouch Rats do only have a life expectancy of 8-9 years, which means they are interacting with humans and being trained from the time they are only 4 weeks old. Through continuous positive reinforcement, they are trained to associate “clicks” with scents and desired behaviors. From here they move into a sandbox that mimics the real environment that they are preparing for. It’s safe to say that these rats deserve a nice big piece of cheese for the help they are able to provide.
To find out more about APOPO and how they’re using rats to save lives, go to https://www.apopo.org/en/.