Two Decades On, Giant African Rats Still Making Impact in Detecting Landmines and Tuberculosis
MOROGORO, Tanzania — The charity famed for its use of specially trained rats in landmine and tuberculosis detection celebrates its 20th anniversary this week.
Harnessing the highly attuned sense of smell in the African giant pouched rat, the international organization APOPO has spent the last two decades training these affectionate rodents in detecting two of the deadliest threats on the planet: landmines and tuberculosis. Each gives off its own unique smell, undetectable to humans, something which the rats are able to quickly sniff out.
"This is a case where mother nature has built a detection system that, coupled with modern technology, can save lives in places where cost-effective and efficient tools aren't readily accessible," says Bart Weetjens, founder of APOPO. "There's a powerful and life-saving alert system in the little noses of these rats. Even after 20 years of working with them, I'm still in awe of what they can do."
Two decades ago, Weetjens, a graduate in product design at Antwerp University in Belgium, called his friend Christophe Cox (now APOPO CEO) to tell him about an idea he'd had after watching a documentary about landmines. Weetjens, who as a teenager had trained his own pet rats to find hidden objects for treats, wondered if rats could be trained to find these insidious weapons and free communities from the terror and hardship they cause. Putting together a team of dedicated colleagues and friends at the University, Weetjens presented the project to the Belgian Government in November 1997 and won the organization's first grant to test the idea. The APOPO project was born, later expanding into tuberculosis detection.
Twenty years later, APOPO (which stands for Anti-Persoonsmijnen Ontmijnende Product Ontwikkeling in Dutch, or Anti-Personnel Landmines Detection Product Development) has now faced the landmine issue in seven countries, including Cambodia, Angola and, notably, Mozambique, where it played a key role in the country achieving 'mine-free' status in 2015.
The HeroRATs have helped clear over 106,000 landmines, identified over 12,000 TB-Positive patients who were missed by their clinics, and prevented almost 90,000 potential infections of tuberculosis – today's biggest infectious disease global killer.
But APOPO has not stopped there. Last year, the organization began a pilot program with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to tackle illegal wildlife and hardwood trafficking, specifically focusing on pangolins — one of the world's most trafficked and endangered animals. A group of HeroRATs began training for this newest mission in Tanzania this month.
What's Next? APOPO is now looking at opportunities to eliminate landmines in former FARC territories in Colombia, where minimal-metal mines aren't easily detected by metal detectors, and in the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park in Zimbabwe, where APOPO expects to soon begin work detecting mines along important migration routes for elephants, buffalo, lions and other protected wildlife. In addition, APOPO's TB detection programs are expanding in Tanzania and Mozambique and will soon be operational in Ethiopia. APOPO is also exploring using rats for search and rescue operations, particularly in collapsed buildings, and even in sniffing out brain disease.
The Next 20 Years: Twenty years after the Ottawa landmine treaty was signed, there is still work to be done. To this day, 58 countries are still plagued by as many as 110 million landmines buried in the ground. However, global financial support for mine clearance is declining, necessitating a faster way to find the landmines. APOPO's goal is to become the go-to resource in accelerating the pace of landmine clearance as the world races to accomplish the Ottawa Treaty target of eliminating all landmines by 2025. In order to do this, APOPO's HeroRATs could be the key to speeding up the decades long process.
"When we launched APOPO, the common view was that it would take another 500 years to clear all landmines from the Earth's surface," APOPO CEO Christophe Cox said. "Twenty years later, there is light at the end of the tunnel, and if the international community fully supports the collaboration of all demining operators, we could clear the remaining minefields by the 2025 mine ban treaty deadline."
At the same time, more than 1.5 million people die of tuberculosis each year. Over the next several years, APOPO wants to fight tuberculosis at source by launching TB-detection rat facilities in major cities of all 30 high TB-burden countries.
APOPO is an award winning, non-profit International NGO that has developed an innovative method deploying African giant pouched rats, nicknamed "HeroRATs", to detect landmines and tuberculosis using their extraordinary sense of smell. APOPO's headquarters, training and research center is based in Morogoro, Tanzania and the HeroRATs detect tuberculosis in Tanzania, Mozambique, and soon Ethiopia.