Rats to the Rescue

February 09 2006 | by

110 MILLION MINES scattered in some 70 countries around the globe is the United Nation's estimate of what might be considered man's conscious effort to hurt one another. Among these, Anti-Personnel Landmines, APMs, which are usually buried in the ground, and are detonated when stepped upon or moved in any way, are the most commonly deployed in conflicts around the world as they are designed to kill or disable their victims permanently, often by shattering one or both limbs beyond repair. Next to these are antitank mines usually hidden underground, followed by above-ground mines that are triggered by tripwires. Today, a platoon of limbless civilians - men, women and children - worldwide testifies to this awful reality. The International Committee of the Red Cross states that there are some 250,000 land mine amputees in the world.

Intelligent stupidity

The UN estimate of the total number of landmines in the world puts about 44.8 million of it in 11 African countries, in a continent where civil wars have been waged over the decades. Of these, the worst affected, by far, are Angola, with 15,000,000 landmines and about 23,000 amputees (one out of every 470 people). Egypt, with an estimated 23,000,000 mines, the bulk of which were laid during the Second World War, and the others during the Arab-Israeli wars that took place between 1948 and 1973. And of course, Mozambique, whose 3,000,000 mines (that have claimed thousands of lives), are among the legacies of the bitter civil war that ended in 1992. Even after 12 years, mine explosions still kill or injure people. In 2003 alone, sappers there discovered and destroyed more than 10,100 mines.      
In these three countries, like in many others across the continent, such as Chad (with 70,000 landmines), Eritrea (1,000,000), Ethiopia (500,000), Liberia (18,250), Namibia (50,000), Rwanda (250,000), Somalia (1,000,000) and Sudan (1,000,000), casualties are still mounting, mainly because many mined areas are unmarked and the mines remain active for many decades. In September 1997, increasing international concern over the humanitarian crisis caused by landmines culminated in the adoption of a convention, the key provisions of which included a comprehensive ban on all anti-personnel mines, the destruction of stockpiled mines within four years, the removal and destruction of mines already in the ground within 10 years, and the encouragement of mine-clearing assistance from capable countries, governmental organizations and NGOs. But experts say the pace of land-mine detection has slowed globally in recent years, in part because of lack of publicity and support.

A bloody business

Equally disconcerting are the astronomical costs of de-mining worldwide, which has now pushed the process into the international agenda as a humanitarian emergency. The UN states that to rid the world of landmines, approximately $33 billion would be needed. But there is also the problem of shortage of landmine specialists, and a dearth of sure-fire methods to find buried mines. According to one report, just about every method of detecting landmines has a drawback. Metal detectors, for instance, are known to be unable to distinguish between a landmine from a ten penny nail.
Though human detection remains the preferred technique, the snag is difficult to ignore - steel-nerved workers with metal detectors and probes are hard put to distinguish mines from other metal objects, and even from some nonmetals, like mixtures of dirt and charcoal. Moreover, in areas where exploded mines have scattered metal fragments, rooting out false readings can be daunting. As for armored bulldozers, the drawback is that they work well only on level ground. As a result, dogs with their strong noses and affinity for people have become increasingly popular, with about 200 of them now working in heavily mined Afghanistan.
But mine-sniffing dogs have their drawbacks too; not only do they often get bored, they are also hard to keep healthy, especially in tropical Africa. And as they tend to bond with trainers, it is difficult to switch them between handlers. They run the risk of being blown up if they make mistakes. Further, they so badly want to please that a simple misreading of their trainers' body language can lead them to indicate a mine's presence where none exists or, far worse, ignore a real one.

Mine-sniffing rats

So now, in the absence of a foolproof method, it seems that the Gambian and African giant pouched rats are coming to the rescue. Up to 30 inches long, they can live up to eight years in captivity and are 'savage' in the wild, therefore able to thrive in most of sub-Saharan Africa.
Interestingly, these Gambian pouched rats, also known as Cricetomys gambianus, are said to be so docile when bred that some people keep them as pets. Already tested in Mozambique, they are reported to be as good a mine detector as man or nature has yet devised. They are called pouched rats because they store food, hamster-style, in their cheeks. In a November 2003 test along a southern Mozambique railway that was heavily mined during the country's 17-year civil war, teams of three giant pouched rats found every one of 20 live mines in a previously un-surveyed 4,300-square-foot swatch of land. Outfitted in tiny harnesses and hitched to 10-yard clotheslines, their foot-long tails whipping to and fro, the rats loped up and down the lines, whiskers twitching, noses tasting the air.
At a test ground - a football field-sized patch of earth in the Mozambican countryside - one sleek 2-year-old female rat in a bright red harness paused halfway down the line, sniffed, turned back, and then sniffed again. She gave the red clay a decisive scratch with both forepaws. Her trainer snapped a metal clicker twice, and the rat waddled to him for her reward - a mouthful of banana and an affectionate pet. Like all the training mines, this one was defused. During the test, each rat got to sweep a 10-by-10-meter square of land on which two defused mines or TNT scents had been hidden. Finding the mine or scent earns a click and a bite of banana or peanuts. Failure generally earned a second try.
They are the world's first certified, professional mine-detecting rats. And they work for a reward - bananas and peanuts. Though some tried some tricks to game the system, like scratching the earth randomly in hopes of getting free treats, the trainers feed them and sound a click to signal success only when they scratch the right spots. Therefore, persuading them to hunt for land mines is as simple as convincing them that TNT is just another tasty treat waiting a few inches underground; after all, banana and peanut treats are what drives giant pouched rats to excel.

The Apopo project

This project, initiated in Belgium, is handled by an Antwerp mine-removal group named Apopo, a local acronym for product development geared toward the de-mining of antipersonnel mines.
Behind it are three men - a University of Antwerp professor, Mic Billet, now Apopo's chairman, another Belgian named Bart, whose brother, Frank Weetjens, heads the Mozambique test team, and a college friend, Christophe Cox. The project was started in the late 1990s, when the three men decided that the so-called biosensor animals with great noses were the future of land-mine detection, but that creatures better suited for the task than dogs were the answer. With a grant from the Belgian government, they began hunting for an animal with a dog's sense of smell, but none of its drawbacks. They approached Ron Verhagen, the head of the university's biology department, for help. And through him, rats came into the picture.
The group, Apopo, breeds and conditions the rats to associate TNT with food at a Tanzania site. 'TNT means food,' said Mr Weetjens, whose brother runs the site along with Mr Christophe Cox. 'TNT means clicking sound, means food. That's how we communicate with them.' After the training, the rats are then sent to Mozambique, where training is financed by a Belgian government grant. But their journey from farm pest to mine-detectors was not without incident. According to a report, the first batch died en route after being accidentally left for two days on a broiling Johannesburg airport tarmac. A second batch, born in the wild, were said to be generally unmanageable. According to the head of the training team, Frank Weetjens, 'They'd bite you. They'd climb over nine-foot Plexiglas walls at night, and in the morning we'd find them on the floor, fighting.' But the third set, a home-bred batch mostly thrived.
Now, mine-sniffing rats are the sole focus of Apopo, who say that the rats, unlike dogs, don't bond with people, but will do anything for bananas and peanuts. 'All a rat wants to do is finding the target and getting his reward,' confirmed Mr Havard Bach, a top expert on de-mining for the Geneva International Center for Humanitarian De-mining. 'They're almost mechanical in the way they work.' According to him, 'Animal detection, with dogs in particular, has increased very much in the last three or four years.' But in many cases, he said, 'it would probably be better to use rats than dogs.' Rats are abundant, cheap and easily transported. At three pounds, they are too light to detonate mines accidentally. They can sift the bouquet of land-mine aromas far better than any machine.
A major advantage of the rats is that unlike even the best mine-detecting dog or human, they are relentlessly single-minded. 'Throw a stick for a dog to fetch, and after 10 times the dog will say, 'Get it yourself, buddy', but rats will keep working as long as they want food.'



Updated on October 06 2016