Although the title of this post may sound like the title of a new show on the Sci-Fi Channel, it’s actually about Bart Weetjens’s group Apopo and the legions of rats he uses to save lives. Okay it still sounds a little bit fantastic, let me explain….
Bart Weetjens was selected to be an Ashoka Fellow in 2006 in support of his plan to use trained rats to detect land mines and Tuberculosis cultures. His organization Apopo allows people to virtually adopt rats through donations. The donations fund the program which allows Apopo staff to train rats to do very simple life saving, low-cost tasks. Their website sums it up:
Every 20 minutes, someone is hurt or killed by a landmine and every second, someone new contracts Tuberculosis. These are daunting numbers, but a local, cheap, and efficient solution exists: HeroRATS! One herorat can clear 100 square meters of a landmine field in 30 minutes equivalent to two days work for a manual deminer. Another can evaluate 40 TB samples in 7 minutes, equal to what a skilled lab technician, will do in two days!
5€ per month is all it takes to adopt a HeroRAT! You can be a part of eradicating the dangers posed by landmines and curbing the spread of Tuberculosis.
It’s a creative spin on the old ‘Adopt-a-Child’ ads so prevalent on American TV in the 90’s. ie. For only twenty five cents a day you too can support heroic rats like Allan and Ziko.
The process of removing a landmine is simple and effective…
Once the boundaries of a minefield are delineated, the task of locating and removing the landmines and UXO can start. To speed up the process of demining, mine detection rats are used to directly indicate the positions of buried landmines. On average, it takes a rat a half an hour to search a 100m2 box. And in general, mine detection rats cover 200 sqm per day.
The rat is guided by a search string, which is connected between its two trainers. The rat moves systematically up and down the search string, processing lane by lane through the suspected box. Both trainers take position at opposite sides of the box in the safe lane, fixing the search string to the lower leg. When a rat reaches the end of the box, the operators make a lateral step, and the rat moves into the next lane. A box or lane system provides the safe access lanes for the trainers. APOPO is using 5 by 20 meter boxes, which means that the rat has to search 40 lanes of half a meter to clear one box.
The rat indicates the position of a landmine by scratching the surface at the spot. Being lightweight, they do not set off the explosive devices. In a training situation, the trainer clicks upon a correct indication by the rat and the animal moves to the trainer to get its reward. A second person, the observer, takes notes on the behavior and performance of the rat while working.
Typically, one to two rats are used consecutively to search an area. The number of rats to be used depends on the risk assessment of the area, operational scenario and the combination with other search techniques. Quality control behind other detectors or a confirmation search behind a mechanical clearance will require less animals compared to primary detection.