This was in Saturday's The Straits Times front page news - This African Giant Pouched Rat is trained to detect lethal buried landmines in Mozambique. Belgian innovator Bart Weetjens has trained rats to detect landmines due to their powerful sense of smell. He calls them HeroRATS. Their next frontier is the Thai-Cambodia border, where hidden landmines have caused immense loss of human life and limbs.
The story of HeroRATS began in the 1990s, when Bart Weetjens travelled to Africa to observe demining techniques that relied on clumsy, risky mechanical detectors or dogs. Back in Belgium's University of Antwerp, Bart developed a system, training rats to detect TNT vapours and other components of mines. In six to eight months, rats are ready for the field and placed on a light leash. On finding a mine, they signal to their handlers by digging vigorously. The reward may be a piece of peanut or banana. The plus point is that the 1.5kg rats are too light to trigger the explosives which have a trigger point of 5kg. This results in a speedier process and no mess to clean up if any mine was detonated.
Rats are also cheaper than dogs for the job. It costs US$5,000 to US$6,000 to train, feed, house and transport each rat throughout its lifetime, compared to US$20,000 to US$25,000 for canines. The rats have an eight-year lifespan, and spend five years in action. A trained rat can search 100 sq m of land in 20 minutes. Similar work would take a human deminer two days, working in dangerous conditions.
Bart Weetjens, a former soldier turned Buddhist monk's rat regiment has recently swept a small minefield in the village of Pfulwe, clearing the way for the national electrical company to set up grids and now 10,000 villagers have lights in the evening.
The landmine problem is global. Landmine Action, a London advocacy group, reports that mines contaminate more than 80 nations. The most affected areas are Afghanistan, Angola, Bosnia, Cambodia, Eritrea, Iraq, Laos, Somalia, Sri Lanka and Sudan. Each year, there are up to 20,000 new casualties, many of them children. The mines block access to land, water and vital resources; post-conflict reconstruction is also hampered.