Could Giant Rats Eliminate Land Mines in Thailand?
A Tanzania-based nonprofit that trains rats to sniff out land mines is seeking to expand to Thailand.
Across the world, African giant-pouched rats are replacing dogs as man’s best friend. For 11 years, Tanzania-based nonprofit APOPO has trained rats to sniff out hidden land mines or life-threatening tuberculosis. Now, APOPO wants to bring its "HeroRATs" from Africa to Asia.
Rats have excellent senses of smell and weigh too little to set off land mines with their bodies, making them the perfect alternative to using robots or humans to find mines in war-torn countries. Plus, they like to socialize, are easy to train, and are motivated almost entirely by food. HeroRATs have already found 861 land mines in Mozambique, allowing trained technicians to destroy the mines before they can harm local residents.
APOPO is in the process of conducting a land mine survey in southern Thailand, in hopes of getting rats involved once more funds are raised. The Cambodian wars of the 1970s led to major battles around the border between the two countries, with the Khmer Rouge planting large numbers of mines on the Thai side. The Thai government has committed to ridding the country of land mines by 2018, which would be all but impossible without NGO involvement. "Many years with very limited funding have meant that they have been trying to do it on their own, and the result is the very traditional approach," program manager Andrew Sully said in a press release announcing his move from APOPO's Mozambique program to Thailand.
It takes nine months and about $8,000 to train each of the 300 HeroRATs at APOPO headquarters in Tanzania, but trainers say the money and lives they save over the long term more than makes up the cost. To learn more about these super-sniffer rodents and the program's expansion to Asia, check out APOPO’s website, where you can even adopt a HeroRAT of your own.
Photo courtesy of Brian Johnson