Page last updated at 00:12 GMT, Friday, 5 March 2010

Can rats help clear Africa's landmines?

By Joe Loncraine
Alvin's Guide To Good Business, BBC World News, Mozambique

Alvin Hall in protective vest
Mr Hall has advised Apopo on new income sources

Landmines - brutal and indiscriminate weapons - are depressingly common in the developing world. Can the highly developed sense of smell of rats help to clear this scourge?

We rattled along the potholed dirt road, a thick plume of red earth spraying out behind us.

Four hours from the Mozambican capital, Maputo, we arrived in the small, dusty town of Chokwe. The reality of where I was going was only just sinking in. We were headed for the largest remaining minefield in Mozambique.

We were travelling with Apopo, a social enterprise that has come up with a unique way of clearing mines - rats.

Hero Rats

Drawing on the rats' remarkable sense of smell, Apopo have found a way to train them to sniff out the TNT in mines. We'd already see them being trained in Tanzania. Now it was time to see them at work in Mozambique.

One of the biggest hindrances to development in rural Mozambique is the presence, or even just the suspected presence, of a mine.

MINES
Countries affected by landmines - 70
Annual number of casualties caused by landmines (2008) - 5,200
Countries producing or able to produce landmines - 13
Source: Land Mine Monitor Annual Report 2009

This was the legacy of Mozambique's brutal civil war, which lasted more than 15 years, led to hundreds of thousands of deaths and left an estimated three million unexploded mines.

Bart Weetjens, a Flemish rodent enthusiast, realised that many African communities are too dependent on overseas foreign expertise to tackle many of the ordinary activities essential for their development, let alone clearing mines.

He believed he could train indigenous people to use a local resource, well suited for the job - African Pouched Rats. Like Pavlov's dogs, the rats are conditioned to associate a stimulus with food - only it's the smell of TNT, rather than the sound of a bell.

When we visited Bart and his team in Tanzania, where the rats are trained, it was all very light-hearted and fun. The large, yet surprisingly cute rats climbed all over the camera crew. Now in Mozambique, the rats' nickname - Hero Rats - suddenly began to feel more appropriate and serious.

Cheaper than dogs

We all had to don protective clothing. Heavy and incredibly hot, it offered some protection but probably wouldn't have saved us from deadly fragmentation mines.

We watched as the rats ran along wires between two handlers. When they smell a landmine, they stop, sniff the ground and begin to dig. This signal lets the Apopo staff know they have found a mine or some other explosive, which can then be removed.

A rat at work detecting mines
The rats dig when they find a landmine

Rats, according to Apopo, are much faster than men using metal detectors and are not distracted by metal contaminants. They are much cheaper to maintain than dogs and are easily passed between different handlers.

So, from a business and economic point of view, the rats seem to make sense. Apopo provides a service paid for by a customer, usually a donor government or UN agency, so it is a business relationship.

However, the whole process is costly and time-consuming, the money available usually only covers costs, so there are no profits to be had. This means that demining is never likely to be a commercially viable business.

Up to now, Apopo has relied on research and development grants. The problem, ironically, is that now the rats are a proven technology, these grants may begin to dry up.

New sustainable sources of income are needed.

TB tasks

This is where our financial expert and presenter, Alvin Hall, had some advice to offer. Apopo raises some funds through their website and its Hero Rat campaign. Members of the public and companies can pay to sponsor and name a rat.

Alvin was keen for them to maximise these opportunities, not least by increasing the minimum payment.

And he advised them to try to establish a large endowment fund, which wealthy individuals, corporations or trusts could pay into, to give Apopo a secure source of income.

APOPO
Founded - 1997
Revenue (2008) - 1.25m euros
Land cleared (2009) - 719,470 square metres
Source: Apopo

But Bart's big hope for the future is to train the rats for a host of other detection applications, from finding smuggled drugs to medical screening. Apopo is already running trials in Tanzania using the rats to detect tuberculosis in the saliva of sick patients.

The rats can process as many samples in a matter of minutes as a lab technician can in a day. The rats have even detected TB in samples that had been missed by conventional tests.

'Great job'

Apopo hope to become a centre of excellence for the training and development of rodent detectors, leasing out their handlers and animals as needed and training different communities to use their own indigenous rodent species for their own detection needs.

Bart has had a great idea and Apopo is doing a great job putting his idea into practice.

But my fear is that as Apopo is the only de-mining organisation using rats, one fatal oversight could be too much bad PR to handle. Selling rats as heroes is hard enough as it is.

When I finally reached the minefield and walked on ground that had been given the all clear by a rat the day before, I was definitely nervous.

Had any mines been missed? But what's harder to know is, was I more nervous than I would have been had it been cleared by a man and metal detector? Having never been in a minefield before, I just don't know.

Later, I was told that only days before, a human mine clearer from another organisation working in Mozambique had begun his lunch break by putting down his metal detector, walking back along a path he had just cleared, stood on a mine he had missed and was killed.

So why should I trust a fallible human any more than an animal conditioned to believe its survival is dependent on finding landmines?

Apopo's de-mining project was featured in the series Alvin's Guide To Good Business, transmitted on BBC World on 6 and 7 March 2010.



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