by - 16:21

Forget the saying, ‘Like rats from a sinking ship.’ HeroRats are diving nose-first into danger zones and saving human lives as a result.


You might not think there would ever be a good reason for combining the words ‘hero’ and ‘rats’ together, unless maybe you’re just an over-enthusiastic fan of Remy the rat’s cooking feats in Pixar’s Ratatouille.

How Rats Are Saving Human Lives With Their Noses
One of APOPO’s future HeroRats in training. The rats are taught to only detect the scent of explosives, which helps eliminate the possibilities of false alarms that can slow down a human wielding a metal detector. Image: APOPO HeroRATS/Flickr
Since 1997 a non-profit organization operating under the acronym APOPO (short for the mouthful of a Dutch name Anti-Persoonsmijnen Ontmijnende Product Ontwikkeling or, as it’s known by its English translation, Anti-Personnel Landmine Detection Product Development) has been training African Giant Pouched rats to detect two things that humans have the ability to but just not nearly as efficiently: landmines and tuberculosis.

How Rats Are Saving Human Lives With Their Noses
Some of the landmines discovered by HeroRats. Explosive devices like those pictured above can still be found in almost 60 countries. Image: APOPO HeroRATS/Flickr
APOPO’s founder, Bart Weetjens, is a Belgian-born hamster, mouse and rat aficionado who had been journeying across Africa as a student and witnessed firsthand the ongoing destruction and casualties in some of the most landmine-infested regions in the world.

Looking into the feasibility of safely clearing these areas of undetonated explosives and making the land safe to use for locals not wanting to become one of the estimated 4000 people every year killed by landmines, he found a study focused on gerbils being able to recognize the presence of explosives by their scent.

How Rats Are Saving Human Lives With Their Noses
It takes nine months to train a HeroRat, but they can work in the field for years. Image: APOPO HeroRATS/Flickr
Enter into the picture a lightweight, four-legged critter: the aforementioned giant pouched rat. These two-foot long rodents have several factors working for them when it comes to locating landmines despite having lousy eyesight, including a canine-esque sense of smell that can smeall as little as an ounce of explosive material, plus having a long lifespan of 8-9 years meaning they are well worth the $6,700 cost of training them.

Not to mention they’re clever enough to know that if they’re going to be asked to do life-risking work like scratch at the dirt on top of an explosive when they find it they should at least be given a hunk of banana as a reward and a decent retirement package when they decide to hang up their harness.

How Rats Are Saving Human Lives With Their Noses
Humans can do the same job as a rat, but at a drastically slower pace due to metal detectors picking up constant false readings due in part to search areas already having shrapnel scattered everywhere from previously detonated mines. Image: APOPO HeroRATS/Flickr
A huge advantage these rats have over humans carrying mine detectors or their canine compatriots is their body mass: the average landmine will explode if there’s 11 pounds (5 kilograms) of weight placed on it, but even with the word ‘giant’ in their name these rats usually weigh in at just under 3.5lbs (1.5kg).

How Rats Are Saving Human Lives With Their Noses
Unlike bomb-sniffing dogs, HeroRats are not handler-loyal, which means a rat will work with anyone. The rat is harnessed and a lead attached that guides where the rat is needed to search. Image: APOPO HeroRATS/Flickr
They can also clear in 20 minutes an area that would take a team of their two-legged co-horts 25 hours to do, thanks to their laser-like focus on sniffing for explosive materials only; shrapnel or metallic scrap doesn’t set off false warnings to slow them down like it can a team armed with metal detectors.

In total, the detecting skills of the APOPO HeroRats have helped in finding over 105,000 landmines and the clearing of nearly 22 million square meters of land.

How Rats Are Saving Human Lives With Their Noses
There are risks being on the frontlines, including skin cancer. HeroRats get their ears coated with sunscreen frequently wile detecting, and when they discover an explosive device they are rewarded with fresh fruit. Image: APOPO HeroRATS/Flickr
Now being used in other mine-laden countries like Cambodia (4930 landmines discovered and neutralized), Vietnam (four mobile teams have cleaned away almost 19,000 mines and ordnances) and Thailand (662 landmines cleared and an additional 934 explosive devices neutralized) not one of APOPO’s 111 mine detecting rats has been lost in the line of duty.

How Rats Are Saving Human Lives With Their Noses
Tuberculosis samples are placed for a rat to sniff. A simple scratch on the floor of the test area means a positive hit. Image: APOPO HeroRATS/Flickr
While technically the working conditions are not as dangerous, these rats also have APOPO-trained relatives working to save human lives in a laboratory setting, too, sniffing out tuberculosis in spit samples at an astonishing pace in areas like Tanzania and Mozambique.

How Rats Are Saving Human Lives With Their Noses
A single TB-detecting rat can work through more samples in ten minutes than a lab technician can do in a day. Image: APOPO HeroRATS/Flickr
In Tanzania the TB rats are now being used in 21 medical centers, and during the initial stages of rats being involved with the TB screening process in Mozambique they were responsible for a 44% increase in the detection of the disease. In total, over 11,000 additional cases of tuberculosis have been detected from over 400,000 samples screened.

How Rats Are Saving Human Lives With Their Noses
The surroundings may be drastically different, but the overall concept is the same: find the bad stuff, get a yummy reward. Image: APOPO HeroRATS/Flickr
Like their landmine-seeking brethren, the TB rats are trained to look for specific ‘red flags’; in the case of tuberculosis it’s the scent of molecules associated with the disease. Considering TB kills more than 40 times as many people in Africa a year compared to landmines, the potential for HeroRats to be a positive game changer in substantially lowering tuberculosis-related deaths is huge.

How Rats Are Saving Human Lives With Their Noses
After life in the field, HeroRats get to lay back, relax and maybe even start a family. Image: APOPO HeroRATS/Flickr
APOPO HeroRats all enjoy a peaceful retirement after their active field duty is over. Want to help keep these rats comfy during their golden years? Consider contributing a monthly adoption donation to APOPO here.

Watch APOPO founder Bart Weetjens explain the HeroRats concept during a 2010 TED Talks presentation.

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