Training Rats to Detect Land Mines

A rat sniffs out a landmine at APOPO's training minefield in Tanzania.

After Mozambique’s decade-long war for independence (1964–1974) and the civil war that ended in 1992, a network of landmines remained buried in all ten of the country’s provinces. Anti-vehicle mines made roads treacherous, and the death toll in some communities was high. But today, four northern provinces have been cleared of mines, thanks, in large part, to a rat.

Detecting and removing land mines has long been dangerous, costly, and time-consuming work. But Belgian engineer Bart Weetjens has discovered a better way. He founded the organization APOPO in the late 1990s to train rats to detect landmines.1

Rats are uniquely suited to the task. They have an excellent sense of smell and, unlike metal detectors, they can sniff out both plastic and metal-cased land mines. They are smart, easy to train and care for, and cheap. They are also lightweight, so they don’t detonate the mines (no rats have been killed in the line of duty).

APOPO works with the African giant pouched rat, a native African species with an eight-year life span. It takes APOPO nine months to train a rat, and the cost is one-third to one-quarter of the cost of training a mine-detection dog. Two mine-detection rats, working with two trainers, can cover 300 square meters of land in an hour—it would take two men working with metal detectors two days to cover the same area. In Mozambique, APOPO found and destroyed over 1,860 landmines and 776 “items of unexploded ordnance.” The group’s success has begun to attract international interest: in 2010 the Thailand Mine Action Center commissioned APOPO to survey all mine-suspected areas in the provinces of Trat and Chantaburi, along the Thai-Cambodian border.

APOPO believes that rats can also offer solutions for the medical field: it is now using its rats to sniff out tuberculosis in Tanzania. Thirty-two trained rats screened more than 20,000 sputum samples of 10,000 patients and detected 300 new cases of TB that were missed by the hospitals. The rats can evaluate 40 sputum samples in seven minutes—the equivalent of a full day’s work for a lab technician.