Social Entrepreneur Discovers The Best Technology For Discovering Unexploded Land Mines: Rats

Rat Mines

Bart Weetjens had a lifelong fascination with rodents. And as the issue of unexploded mines became an international news story he began proposing using rats to discover them. 

Weetjens got a grant from the Belgian government to pioneer this technique in 1997 and now rats are being used almost exclusively in Africa to find and detect mines. In fact, according to the Skoll Foundation, these rats have already returned 1.3 million square meters of suspected minefields to original populations in Mozambique

And now Weetjens enterprise APOPO has started to use rats to diagnose tuberculosis in patients. 

Mozambique has been afflicted by civil war, and mines were used extensively throughout the conflict and have remained a major problem for decades.

Typically humans clear potential minefields with metal detectors. The process is extremely slow and expensive.

But populations of people and cattle have been taking the risk of moving back toward land that might contain mines.

Enter Bart Weetjeens. He had a very crude seeming solution.

Rats. Weetjens used to keep them as pets and breed them as a child.

And he remembered how sensitive their noses were, and how easily they could be trained.

Training rats to find TNT isn't much different from training dogs. A TNT cartridge is put into a hole at the bottom of this case.

When the rat sniffs the TNT...

...the trainer uses a clicker to 'mark' the behaviour...

and the rat is rewarded with food.

Out in the field, the rats wear a harness and run along lines.

Two men hold the lines that the rats run along and systematically sweep an area for land mines.

The men have to wear some protective bomb gear - quite a bit more protection than the rats get.

The rats are pretty frantic about finding and staying on any trace of TNT

In fact rats are so easily trainable and reliable at detecting smells that they have been put to use at clinics.

The rats are trained to sniff out traces of tuberculosis in cultures taken from patients.

But it is their work in mined fields that has rats suddenly being trained on three different continents to hunt for mines.

Want to see some sporting animals engaged in something more fun?

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