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Last Updated: Monday, 4 August 2003, 13:46 GMT 14:46 UK
Sniffer rats to find African mines
Christophe Cox and a rat
The rats adapt easily to new trainers
A new weapon is being developed in the battle against the millions of unexploded landmines that kill innocent children and adults around the world - the African pouched rat.

Cheap, intelligent and, crucially, lightweight, rats are being trained in Tanzania to sniff out landmines and explosives.

Their trainers at Sokoine University of Agriculture in Tanzania say that for the reward of a bit of banana the rats can do a much better job than dogs.

"They are more mechanical than a dog and they are easier to transfer to different owners," the Belgian coordinator of the project, Christophe Cox, told BBC News Online.

When working the rats are harnessed and hitched to a sliding rail mounted on a metal grid.

Two human handlers roll the grid over a suspected minefield.

Ratty treat

When a rat scratches and sniffs to indicate a mine, the handler activates a clicker and pulls the rat over to the side by his lead to reward him with a bit of banana.

When fully trained, the rats sniff out a mine, then sit and scratch at the spot until they are rewarded with food.

A human explosives expert then destroys the mine.

They do all look quite similar and I'm surprised how the trainers can recognise one among others
Christophe Cox
The rats are about 75 centimetres long (30 inches) and weigh about 1.35 kilograms (3 lbs). This means they can scamper across a minefield without detonating the charges.

The rats are put through their paces on minefield at the university campus.

Mr Cox reassured BBC News Online that none of the animals had been lost to any explosive errors.

The project, run by Belgium-based research organisation Apopo, has support from major demining organisations including the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian De-mining.

Disease fear

As well as training and trials in Tanzania, the first main field trials for the sniffer rats are starting in Mozambique - a country whose civil war left a legacy of around 500,000 landmines.

"We have been doing research for about five years," said Mr Cox. "We are anxious to know the results of Mozambique."

The rats may have a poor profile worldwide - they were banned from the United States earlier this year after the animals were blamed for the spread of monkeypox.

But trainers can get quite attached to the creatures.

"They have their own characters and it is good to know your own animal because not all of them have the same feedback reaction when responding to a positive find," said Mr Cox.

"But they do all look quite similar and I'm surprised how the trainers can recognise one among others."

Clearing landmines in Lebanon
30 Dec 02 |  UK News
Face to face with landmine
29 May 03 |  Wales
Sri Lanka mines take toll
24 Feb 03 |  South Asia
Landmines remain global problem
13 Sep 02 |  South Asia
Country profile: Tanzania
27 May 03 |  Country profiles
Country profile: Mozambique
27 May 03 |  Country profiles

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