Every year, leftover land mines from past conflicts kill or maim an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 people worldwide. While most techniques to clear minefields are slow and expensive, Bart Weetjens found a cheaper and more efficient strategy to detect mines–trained rats! When students watch Tanzania: Hero Rats, they will meet Weetjens and his rats, see how they are trained, and watch them in action in the minefields.
For classrooms studying global studies and world history, FRONTLINE/World provides a set of video themes and discussion questions to help students analyze and understand key current events around the globe. Watch the video chapter and start a discussion about the innovative idea of training rats to help humans with a major problem like detecting land mines. Go further into this topic with the Tanzania: Hero Rats Lesson Plan that asks students to evaluate whether the U.S. policy on land mines sufficiently addresses the world’s land mine problem.
Every hour, somewhere in the world, a person is maimed or killed by a land mine. Although the physical damage land mines cause is substantial, their threat is potentially more harmful, stunting development, preventing land cultivation and disrupting essential transportation.
Recognizing that African giant pouched rats have an incredible sense of smell, Bart Weetjens established a lab in Tanzania to train these rats to detect land mines.
Although dogs have traditionally been used to help humans detect mines, Weetjens realized that rats are lighter, cheaper to maintain, and less susceptible to tropical disease.
After about a year’s worth of training, rats are sent to help clear minefields. When they smell explosives, they begin to scratch the ground to indicate the presence of a mine. A demining team then carefully digs up and defuses the mine.
What characteristics of African giant pouched rats make them suited to detecting land mines?
What techniques are used to train the rats?
Why does Weetjens think rats are a better choice than dogs for detecting land mines?
In what ways do these rats provide social and economic benefits to the people of Mozambique?
The film shows how the rats, with their powerful sense of smell, might be used in other ways to save lives, such as by helping doctors to diagnose tuberculosis. Can students think of other problems that the rats could potentially help to solve?
Featured Lesson Plan: “Addressing the Problem of Land Mines”
Web-exclusive Resources: Land Mines Map: An Enduring Danger