HeroRATS Detecting Landmines
(a HeroRAT snacking on a banana)
Land mines are explosive devices concealed under the ground during wartimes, designed to destroy enemy targets when they pass over it. However, land mines can remain dangerous for many years after a military conflict ends, causing huge damages to both civilians and the economies of many countries. 78 countries worldwide are contaminated with land mines, and there are approximately 15,000 ~ 20,000 landmine casualties annually, and countless more are maimed. While deploying landmines can be done with ease, the process of de-mining is much more complicated, and the most effective method to this date, remains to be manual clearing. However, manual de-mining, as you can guess, is a very dangerous task. Good thing we have rats to help us out.
African giant pouched rats are huge rodents native to Central Africa that have recently been discovered to be excellent landmine hunters, due to their extraordinary sense of smell. Unlike trained dogs, rats are much smaller (meaning there’s a lower risk of setting off the landmines), easier to transport, and easier to train. One rat can search over 200 square meters in 20 minutes, an area which would take a human with a metal detector 4 days to look over. Ever since APOPO (a Belgian non-profit organization that pioneered the use of TNT-sniffing rats) was founded in 1997, these incredible rodents have helped clear more than 13,200 landmines in Tanzania, Angola, Mozambique, and Cambodia. The rats trained by APOPO are called heroRATs, and they certainly live up to that name.
However, training these rats is no easy process, taking up to nine months to complete. Landmine detection training starts as soon as the rat pup opens its eyes at four weeks old, where the first step is getting the young rats used to socializing with its human trainer, other rats, and the environment. After this, the rats are introduced to a variety of olfactory stimuli ranging from flowers to coffee. Then the rats are trained to associate a click ‘sound’ with a tasty reward, and work for months using the click & reward system, with the target smell being that of TNT. Finally, the rats are put through a final exam, where they go through a ‘blind test’ (meaning even the trainers are not aware of the mines’ location in case they give visual cues) in detecting landmines. If they score a 100% on this test, they are officially licensed, and are sent out to operate on actual minefields.
If you’re not impressed yet, APOPO is currently working on training tuberculosis detecting rats that can identify patients with tuberculosis (a disease that kills millions yearly) through smell alone. Now that you know this, if you ever see a rat in your city, remember that their cousins are working tirelessly out in the fields to save thousands of lives everyday.