60 Second Docs Animal Style is introducing the world to the heroic, landmine-sniffing rats of Tanzania. The non-profit APOPO (an acronym for Anti-Persoonsmijnen Ontmijnende Product Ontwikkeling: “Anti-Personnel Landmines Removal Product Development” in English) breeds and trains rats for the purpose of seeking out and identifying landmines.
APOPO got its start when Belgian rat-fancier Bart Weetjens was exploring solutions for the global landmine problem. He soon determined that rats, “intelligent, cheap and widespread … were going to detect landmines.” Bart consulted with Prof. Ron Verhagen, rodent expert at the University of Antwerp, who saw the project as feasible, and recommended the African Giant Pouched rat (Cricetomys Gambianus) for the job.
“Raised from birth to hunt mines, APOPO’s rats, nicknamed HeroRATs are trained with bananas and the small clickers used to train puppies. Dozens of rats are deployed over a suspected minefield, where each one can search 200 square metres (about 2150 square feet) of land in just 20 minutes,” reports The Guardian US’s Sam Jones, while “People using metal detectors would take five days to search the same area. In neighboring Mozambique, HeroRATs, handlers, manual demining teams and armoured vehicles have so far found and destroyed more than 13,000 landmines, reclaiming more than 11 million square metres (1,100 hectares) of land.”
“Previous generations of HeroRATS have already reclaimed millions of square metres of land in Angola and Mozambique – the latter of which is expected to be declared mine-free soon,” says The Guardian, and now, “this cadre of rats could find themselves deployed to Cambodia, where Apopo is working to clear up the explosive legacy of three decades of conflict.”
Rat lovers will be pleased to learn that HeroRATs are not being sacrificed to their mission of land reclamation. Though hefty for rats, at about 2.5 lbs., they will not set off a mine, even if they walk over one. In fact, the Giant Pouched rat was chosen for its longevity — up to eight years. “The only downside,” worries The Guardian, “is that they are nocturnal and very susceptible to sunburn, meaning that their delicate ears and tails need to be slathered with sunblock to protect them against skin cancer as they work under the tropical sun.”
APOPO is supported by, among others, the Belgian, Flemish, Norwegian and Liechtenstein Governments, the United Nations Development Program, the US Department of State’s National Institutes of Health, the Province of Antwerp and the World Bank. In 2016, APOPO was ranked 16th in the Global Geneva Top 500 NGOs.
It takes nine months and almost $7,000 to train a mine-detecting rat, but a host of governments, worldwide agencies and Tanzanians believe it’s worth it. Private donors are well-represented in APOPO’s funding, as well. Those wishing to “adopt or gift a HeroRAT” may do so for as little as $7 a month.