9 min read

Rat And His Friends Have A Very Special Job Saving People's Lives

“It amazes people to see the rats doing this kind of work" 👏 👏 👏

In the wee hours of the morning, the Apopo hero rats are just about to start work.

Wearing fitted harnesses, the supersized rats quickly glide across an open field with their noses to the ground. In a matter of seconds, one scratches the ground to give the signal to his trainer, who rewards him with a piece of banana for a job well done.

giant rat detect landmine
Apopo

Just like police dogs, these rats are trained to detect harmful substances with their sensitive noses — and in countries like Cambodia, Angola and Zimbabwe, they’re saving thousands of people from landmines left behind from wars or other conflicts.

Apopo’s founder, Bart Weetjens, thought up the idea more than 20 years ago.

“Landmines are a global problem,” James Pursey, communications director for Apopo, told The Dodo. “Bart always had rats as a teen and was watching a documentary about landmines one day, and he wondered if rodents could be trained to safely sniff them out. And it turns out, they can — very well.”

african giant pouched rat detect landmine
Apopo

While still in college, Weetjens brought the idea to researchers at the Sokoine University of Agriculture. They decided that African giant pouched rats would be most suitable for the job, as they’re larger than most rats, weighing about 2 pounds. After earning a series of grants to start Apopo, Weetjens opened a headquarters and training facility in Tanzania in 2000.

“One of the greatest advantages in choosing a local rat species was that they’re already resistant to the climate and certain diseases common to the area,” Pursey said.

african giant pouched rats detect landmines
Apopo

To work as a detection animal, the rats go through specialized training courses that take between six to nine months. At around 5 weeks of age, the rats are weaned from their mothers and begin a socialization period to introduce them to sights and sounds of the human world. Trainers then begin click training, which teaches the rats to associate a clicking sound with a treat.

Once they have mastered that, the rats move on to learning their single target scent: explosives for detecting landmines.

african rat landmine detection
A young rat with a caretaker | Apopo

“At the end of their training, they get an accreditation test,” Pursey said. “Once passing, they are brought to the country they’ll be working in and are tested again, in addition to daily reinforcement training and practice.”

During fieldwork, landmine rats are sent out to survey suspected areas for underground explosives. Unlike other search methods, which include metal detectors and careful digging over the course of five days, the rats can clear land the size of a tennis court in just 20 minutes.

While it may seem dangerous, the rats are far too light to detonate any of the explosives. Once they finish surveying and have signaled any problem areas, the rats return home and separate contractors can safely detonate the explosives.

african rat detect landmine
Aaron Gekoski

Due to the accuracy and speed of the rats, the detonation process comes much faster, allowing communities to live with peace of mind and use otherwise undeveloped land. Every year, landmines injure or kill thousands of people; according to Landmine Monitor, 2016 marked the highest number of recorded casualties since 1999.

The rats’ work is also helping people change the way they see the animals.

“The communities where we work around the world are usually economically challenged; therefore rats are seen as a pest to them,” Pursey said. “They are normally nibbling at their crops or breaking into their grain stores, so it amazes people to see the rats doing this type of work.”

african farmers landmine rats
Apopo

And detecting landmines isn’t the only thing they can do. Some of the rats are trained to identify tuberculosis — they detect it in human saliva samples. The disease is one of the deadliest infectious diseases worldwide with about 9 million new cases each year. Tests currently available at clinics are slow and between 20 percent to 80 percent of positive tests can be missed.

The rats, however, speed up the TB testing process and can go through up to 1,000 samples per week. Since TB can quickly get worse without treatment, sick patients are able to get the help they need at a faster rate. The rats are currently working in Tanzania, Mozambique and Ethiopia.

african rat tuberculosis test detection
Apopo

Whether it’s landmines or disease, the rats are saving lives and changing perceptions, beginning to be seen as the intelligent, compassionate creatures they are. Over the past 20 years, the hero rats have detected over 100,000 landmines, restored almost 22 million square meters to local communities and identified over 12,000 tuberculosis infections missed by clinics.

giant african rats tuberculosis detection
Scientists neutralize TB samples to make them safe for the rats to test. | Apopo

In addition to sniffing out TB and landmines, some hero rats are even starting to be trained to prevent wildlife trafficking — especially of pangolins: scaly, nocturnal animals native to Africa who are the most-trafficked and poached wild animal in the world.

While the hero rats have a rather high-profile job, they still find ample time to relax from a day’s work — and are treated well, at that.

giant rat african
Rutherford the rat enjoying a snack | Apopo

Living alongside a bonded sibling or friend at home, the rats spend their time off the clock enjoying fresh meals, cuddling in their cages and exploring play areas with plenty of room to dig, tunnel and chew. They also have regular playtime with their caretakers.

Apopo

“They’re very friendly,” Pursey added. “If you put them down, they won’t run off. They’ll just follow you wherever you go.”

Watch a video of the rats in action below:

To support the continued care of the lifesaving rats, you can make a donation to Apopo.