A footlong rodent in a harness is ready to clear the world of landmines. Or at least, for now, parts of Africa.
Like dogs, giant African pouched rats are smart and cooperative, and have a highly developed sense of smell, plus they work for peanuts. These natives of sub-Saharan Africa are tame and can be quickly trained. Unlike dogs, they don’t bond with humans, so they can be handled by more than one trainer. It’s not a kamikaze mission for these HeroRATS, as they are called, since their light weight makes them highly unlikely to set off mines. Once a rat detects the scent of a mine, it scratches furiously at the dirt, a trainer marks the area, and the rat keeps moving.
APOPO, an organization affiliated with Sokoine University of Agriculture in Morogoro, Tanzania, trains the rodents to detect the scent of TNT using a click and reward system. At the age of four weeks, the rats are taught to associate a clicking sound with a food treat. As they progress, they must perform increasingly complicated tasks before being rewarded with a banana or nuts.
In the field, the rats are harnessed and attached to wires, and they scamper sniffing across a field, covering a demarcated search area.
The pouched rats (so-called because of pouches where they store food) have so far worked in actual minefields in Mozambique. And, in what could prove a cheap and effective method for fighting disease, APOPO is also training them to detect tuberculosis in lab samples.