Africa's Notorious Pest Becomes A Furry Savior

Posted by Big Rat on Campus on Nov 23, 2014 in Rat Answers | Subscribe

Post written by
Jay Caboz

Mr. Caboz is a reporter and photographer for Forbes Africa

This article appeared in Forbes Africa

Angola’s estimated 10 to 20 million landmines, still uncovered twelve years after the country’s civil war, remain one of its most serious problems, putting many lives at risk. APOPO, an innovative company founded by a Belgian social entrepreneur, Bart Weetjens, may have found a solution: mines-sniffing rats trained to de-mine Angola’s towns and villages.

It’s 6 a.m. and Gatuso the rat has been up all night, as nocturnal rats tend to be, and now he’s ready for a hard day’s work in the field. He looks harmless as his whiskers twitch in the light of dawn. Most people fear to tread where he works.

Clearing landmines is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. Gatuso takes it on with a sniff of his tiny nose. The rodent has a natural advantage; he weighs less than 1.5 kilograms, too light to trigger a mine. There are 27 rats like him in Camatenda, Angola, clearing minefields so people can till the earth once again.

It takes nine months and more than $8,000 to train a rat to find a landmine. In the field, they are harnessed to a pole, like a dog on a leash, to keep them in their lanes. What Gatuso and his fellow rats do is sniff out the Trinitrotoluene (TNT) beneath the soil. The moment the rat scratches at the landmine, the engineer squeezes a clicker. When the rat smells the TNT and hears the click, it knows it will get food. Once the mine has been detected, a team of men who deactivate mines dig around the device and disarm it.

Bart Weetjens – the Man Behind the Rat

The idea occurred in an unlikely mind. Bart Weetjens, a former product designer from Belgium and a Zen Buddhist monk, heard about the ability of gerbils to sniff out explosives while at a conference on technology development sensors. Weetjens had bred pet rodents as a child.

Weetjens is no stranger to Africa. As a student, he spent three months in the Congo building a soy bean mill for rural farmers. He knew Africa needed to get rid of its deadly landmines and he wanted it to be cheaper and more efficient.

Rats Save People from Landmines in Angola


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