Last week we told you about the African Gambian Pouched Rat's reemergence on Grassy Key. Now comes an organization headquartered in Tanzania called APOPO, dedicated to training African Gambian pouched rats to detect land mines and tuberculosis. When trained, they're dubbed HeroRATS.
Bart Weetjens, a self-described monk, started the organization in 1998. He had read an article about gerbils detecting explosives in airports and says he had an "aha" moment about the Giant Pouched Rats.
The rats train for 9 months -- though it only takes 2-4 weeks to socialize them with humans -- learning to sniff out the explosives in old land mines buried underground, he says.. They scratch the ground when they've smelled the TNT.
After a chat with Chris Hines -- the executive director of the newly formed U.S. branch of APOPO, dedicated to fundraising, awareness, and communication -- we learned even more: that wild, adult Gambian rats are a big problem but if trained young, they could save millions of lives. Hines told us APOPO has 300-325 rats currently, spread out between operations in Tanzania, Mozambique and Angola. They get food, he says, with the use of sounds -- classical conditioning -- which helps when they are learning to look for the land mines.
Among the other interesting bits Hines relayed:
New Times: So, this Gambian Pouched Rat has been an alleged problem in South Florida for years, to the point that officials pretty much agree it needs to be eradicated. That necessary? Hypothetically, if these troublesome rats were all shipped to you, could you teach them anything?
Chris Hines: Yeah, unfortunately we couldn't train them because we actually have to start when they are very, very young. We have our breeding program in Tanzania and these particular species of rat, when they're wild, they're quite undomesticated animals, they're very tough, mean animals. We socialize them from a very young age to make sure they're used to humans and we socialize them to a certain extent that they become familiar with all human sounds and all human interaction. And once we start them at that young age, they become very social animals over the next seven years of their life. We can't actually use the wild animals, unfortunately.
APOPO decided to use these Gambian rats because they're indigenous to Tanzania, but I'm curious: what was the perception of the animal over there before you guys had examples to point to of how they could be trained differently when they're young?
Generally, the rats aren't thought of as great creatures there in Tanzania either, so it's taken a lot of community involvement and buy-in to be able to interact and make sure not just our employees, but the larger community, has a good perspective of the rats. But we've done a lot of marketing and communication to really ensure the Tanzanian community understands what we're trying to do, that we're saving Tanzanian lives by training rats to detect tuberculosis. Once we communicate that message effectively, then rats are thought of as good, but it just takes some quite clear communication and people will slowly change their minds.
The untrained African Gambian pouched rat is what sort of animal? Something humans should be fearful of?
The wild rat -- you don't want to approach. They are quite snappy, they will bite, they will scratch, they're very protective of their young, especially mothers. They're not the nicest animals in the wild. That being said, there are ones that have not had human contact in the past, so they can be a little more docile than others, but in general the most they'll do is break the skin with a small bite.
Land mines aren't talked about a whole lot in this country. How big a problem was this for you guys to look at rats as a solution?
There're still about 45 million landmines in the world currently, so it is a huge problem. There's a lot of countries still planting them and even more militant groups still using and implementing landmines in conflict situations. And so as fast as we can pull them up, they're still being planted and it's going to be a continuing humanitarian disaster for dozens and dozens of years. It's a very slow and dangerous process to remove the landmines because they are buried and they've shifted. We don't have good information as to exactly where they are planted. That's why the rats are so important to that. You're right, land mines aren't talked about a lot in the U.S. and the U.S. is actually one of the only remaining countries and the last developed country to not ban the use of the implementation of land mines. There's an international campaign where over a hundred countries have signed and the U.S. has not signed onto that.
We train our rats in Tanzania, but there aren't any landmines in Tanzania so we send the rats to Mozambique and Angola and in the next two-three months we'll be sending them to Cambodia to start operations there as well. In Mozambique, we've been demining for the last 10 years and we've found over 3,000 land mines and cleared over 8 million square meters of land in that particular country. In Angola, we actually just started so we've only been operational for about two months and we've found a few land mines and cleared a few square meters but we won't have actual reporting numbers for the next few months.
How dangerous is all of this for the rats? On the one hand, folks here maintain they need to be eradicated (and probably rightly so, given that they're undomesticated and nonnative), and the other hand any animal activist would be up in arms about that. Is your method really safe?
We place a very high value on animal warfare and we make sure the rats are well treated and well taken care of. The rats are actually too light to set off a land mine so we've never lost a rat in action, both in land mine detection and tuberculosis detection. That's in terms of the actual operations, now of course, rats get sick like anybody else or any other animal and then they do die occasionally due to illness but we've never lost a rat to a land mine.
I read that APOPO started in 1998 but didn't begin tuberculosis research with rats until 2004. How'd that come about?
We realized that TNT has a pretty strong odor which is what the rats are trained on in the actual landmines and we wanted to see if rats can also be used in another very significant humanitarian problem such as tuberculosis. Even humans can smell tuberculosis a little bit, in very late stages of the disease there becomes a very strong odor, so we put two and two together and figured, let's give it a try. The rats have found a total of over 5,800 positive patients originally misdiagnosed by local hospitals in Tanzania and Mozambique since 2007. In 2013 alone, they found over 2,300 patients that can now receive treatment.
Take a look at this jaw-dropping video we came across that its founder did with the Economist in 2010:
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