Tuesday, December 15, 2009
Africa's Rescue Rangers
Bart Weegens, from Belgium has turned to his childhood interest in Giant pouched rats, when he was searching for a possible solution to the global issue of unexploded mines. When one considers that these rats are easy to train, have an excellent sense of smell and, unlike dogs, are too light to deploy a mine themselves – the idea might not seem so far fetch after all.
Weegens is the founded of APOPO, a non-profit organization, that trains African Giant pouched rats to deploy mines in the field. The rats are trained according to the Pavlovian method that associates the smell of explosives with a treat (such as a banana or peanut). Training takes part in a cage and last up to one year. In the field each rat is connected to a search string and to two trainers. When the rats locate a mine they usually sit still and scratch themselves, whereafter the mines are then deployed by their human helpers. To ensure that all mines have been detected two or three rats will each search the same area. It is important that the rat gets rewarded teach time they perform their function.
Another method called REST (Remote Explosive Scent Tracing) does not involve visiting a minefield at all, the scent is brought from the mines to the rats. The rats can find explosives present in these samples and it helps to determine the actual boundaries of the minefields. These ‘HeroRATS’ as they are called are currently deployed in Mozambique where they have enabled over one thousand families to reclaim their land. They have also helped to bring electricity to remote regions by with clearing areas so that power lines can be passed through, which would not otherwise have been possible.
The Giant pouched rat is a distant relative of the common rat. The female of the species produces up to ten litters a year, although only one to five arrive with each litter, despite the mother having eight nipples. In many African countries they are kept as pets but are also used as a food source. Clearly the rats serve a much greater purpose in the field that on a plate. Plans are being made to deploy the rats in Zambia, Congo and Angola. AGOPO is currently based in Tanzania at the Sokoine University of Agriculture, it is also here that Weegens made his latest discovery that showed that the rats could also detect tuberculosis in human sputum. APOPO is actively looking for partnerships globally, not just in Africa. For more information visit their website at www.apopo.org.