Morogoro, Tanzania – Rain makes for hard conditions when sniffing out explosives. Abraham’s nose is strong enough and he smells the landmine buried below.
A giant pouched rat, he furiously digs at the ground below him. A loud click breaks the activity and Abraham sprints straight across for his treat, a small sweet banana.
After a hard day of practice, Abraham is returned to his cage so that others can have a go. In a matter of months he may be deployed to Mozambique or Angola to help detect and remove landmines.
He is perfect for the job. A person could take days to clear the area that Abraham can cover in less than an hour. His light weight makes it so that he will not set off the mines. His small size makes for easy transport. His strong nose and ease of being trained makes him perfect for smelling out the TNT that is in landmines, bombs and bullets.
Unlike a dog, Abraham will not form personal bonds with his trainers, thus making it easier to send him around the world. Abraham, and his fellow giant African pouched rats, their full name, are the perfect weapon in the effort to de-mine the world.
I arrived in the morning at the Apopo training ground. The Belgian research laboratory conducts trainings for the rats six days a week. The beginners go back and forth over the space of three meters. Blue stakes in the ground tell the trainers where the mine is located so they can positively reward the rats for a correct find. Eventually the rats graduate to five meters and then to larger free-range fields where the trainers do not even know where the mines are placed.
Ninety-nine rats have been deployed thus far. Fifty-seven are in Mozambique where the program is up and running. The other forty-two are patiently waiting in Angola. Once they pass an accreditation test showing 100% efficacy, they will start working there as well. Training takes as short as nine months as the rats have to get used to working with people, associate the click as a positive reward (aka food), learn the smell of the TNT and find the mines.
“They are a lot like people,” said Vendeline Shirima, the training supervisor for Apopo. “Some are lazy and others are quick to learn.”
Shirima worked in pest control when he learned that researchers from Belgium wanted to use rats to find landmines. The initial program used both the pouched rats, since they are native to Morogoro, and traditional lab rats. Shirima joined the program at its onset, but was skeptical.
“It is not possible to train rats,” he said.
The lab rats were rather docile and the pouched rats were unfriendly. However, it was soon learned that the pouch rats are easily trained and better at detecting the landmines. There was one small problem.
The rats learned well that the click was associated with food, but also associated the smell of humans with the food. Rather then smelling for the TNT, they would detect the scent of the person who placed the mine underground. Apopo now soaks the landmines, filled with TNT but unable to be detonated, in chemicals to remove the neutralize the human smell.
It is not as simple as sending a bunch of rats free in the field and wait for them to find landmines. A survey must be conducted to determine where landmines are most likely to be located. Once determined through various interviews of officials, locals and even the people who placed the mines, the group can take out metal detectors to create pathways for the trainers to guide the rats.
Trainers walk parallel across tracks to guide the rats. The beginner rats, like Abraham, walk along metal poles that are rolled along by the trainers. A harness attached to the rat keeps him in place while the trainers pull him along. The poles are learning tools, but cannot be used in the field. If something goes wrong and the landmine detonates, the pole becomes shrapnel that causes even greater damage.
To get past the problem, the trainers are fitted with rope around their legs. They guide the rat along the rope back and forth, stepping to the side in synch down the field. The rats are well trained, one trainer walked behind a rat skipping along to his cage. It takes three months for the trainers to learn how to work with the rats. However, training is often required during deployment due to issues such as work visas.
The rats are an improvement over the current technique of using metal detectors. Surveyors are able to find the mines, but also find other pieces of metal. That means that every time the detector goes off, what is underground must be excavated as if it is a mine. It is slow work that requires breaks every thirty minutes or so. The rats are able to ignore other metals and find the dangerous things.
Bombs and bullets are additional concerns. Children will find them in the field, bring them home or play with them. That puts them in danger as the bombs and bullets can still go off.
The light rain was cause for some concern. Rain has its own smell and causes changes in the ground making it harder for the rats. The Apopo rats appeared to have little problem dealing with the light mist. They came ready to find landmines and enjoy their reward.
Tom Murphy reported this story in Tanzania as a fellow with the International Reporting Project (IRP).