by Alyssa Nader
APOPO is a nonprofit organization that is using rats to save lives and affect social change; it was born of a love of rodents and a desire to solve the world’s problems.
The Big (little?) Idea
Founder Bart Weetjens, of Belgium, explains how it all came together for him. He’s always loved rodents, keeping and breeding various types since childhood. Bart grew up with African exchange students in his home and learned from them about the problems they faced in their countries and how misguided foreign aid wasn’t helping long term. He came across an article about gerbils being trained to smell the scent of explosives, and the idea came to train a rodent to solve one of the world’s most deadly and tragic issues today: landmines.
Landmines are pressure-activated explosives that are buried in the ground in times of conflict, meant to detonate and kill or maim any man or machine that steps on them. Sadly, remaining mines do not disappear once conflicts end. Many mines are placed to block sources of water, power and travel routes from enemies, places where people tend to make their homes. The people who end up stepping on them are no longer soldiers, but innocent people, farmers and even children.
Besides death and injury, the threat of mines keeps people off their land and prevents them from farming, building and being economically self-sufficient. Traditionally, land was cleared bit-by-bit by humans using metal detectors. This is prohibitively slow, expensive, and dangerous, the result of which is thousands of acres of land lying unusable and deadly, and the strong need to solve this problem in another way.
The unlikely solution was rats. The main reason for the rats acing this big interview (besides rats’ high intelligence and ease of training) is that the rats are locals. APOPO uses African giant hooded rats – Gambians – which they call HeroRATs, which are indigenous to the areas in which they work. They are a plentiful, local resource that can be used instead of expensive foreign technologies, and they are also adorable. They are giant compared to the fancy rats we have as pets, weighing as much as 4-5 pounds; however, even the heaviest HeroRAT is much too light to set off a landmine. Rats also have the most sensitive sense of smell of any mammal species and are 50x less expensive to train and keep than dogs.
What would take a human with a metal detector four days, takes a team with a HeroRAT only 20 minutes. The rats are trained by clicker and food reward to scratch at the ground when they detect a mine. Once one is detected, it is marked and then safely detonated.
Because of this, clearing mines with HeroRATs proved to be a massive success, with APOPO completing all their ambitious projects on time or ahead of schedule and under budget. APOPO has cleared/released over 26 million square meters of contaminated land of 69,000 landmines and/or bombs across 5 countries, helping nearly 1 million people to get back on their land and to live free from the terror of mines.
In 2015, Mozambique became the first ever heavily-mined country to be declared free of all known mines due to APOPO’s efforts.
Grassroots Support for Success
APOPO’s approach focuses on local empowerment and taking advantage of resources that are already available. It creates jobs and increases community support; no one knows what issues a community is facing as well as the members of that community itself.
Local people work on every step of the process, from managing the facilities and staff, to breeding, training and deploying the rats in the field. Local input has been a guiding force that led to successful initiatives such as the de-mining of Mozambique.
What about the rats? Are they blowing up rats?
No. The beauty of APOPO’s technique is its safety for humans and rats alike. Not a single HeroRAT has ever been killed or injured while detecting.
In addition, APOPO is focused on the welfare of its HeroRATS. This includes veterinary care, stimulating, natural environments, nutritious diets, and ample socialization by staff. Rats who are not able to be trained or who do not pass certification are kept as playmates for their working brothers and sisters.
Hate landmines? Love rats? Support HeroRATS
APOPO is a nonprofit that depends on donations to keep up the vital work that they are doing, and of course to buy the rats’ bananas. Get involved by making a tax-deductible donation or sponsoring a HeroRAT.
Visit their beautiful website to learn more about their work, and the amazing things they are doing in the fight against tuberculosis, which more people die from globally than any other infectious disease.
**Important: African giant hooded rats are not domesticated animals! Check out this. And please consider sponsoring a HeroRAT instead. That way they can save lives, instead of eating your apartment.**
If you would like to adopt a domesticated rat here in the US check out Rattie Ratz Rescue on their website www.rattieratz.com. Alyssa will be writing some of the Rattie Ratz columns for KRL.
Check out more animal rescue stories in our Pet Perspective section.