A giant African rat has become man's second best friend as it joins forces with the dog to sniff out landmines in Mozambique. The Belgian de-mining research group APOPO has eight of the rodents working alongside dogs and metal detectors on a minefield in Mozambique's coastal town of Vilanculos, some 650 kilometers north-east of the capital Maputo. The Gambian giant pouched rats are helping to clear a stretch of fertile land that has lain fallow since a savage civil war ended in 1992.
Landmines are an insidious legacy of that conflict that maim and kill Mozambicans to this day, including rural children who were born long after the guns were silenced. The biggest problem in landmines is that from the moment there is a mine somewhere, a very large area becomes suspect and has to be cleared before people can go back to farming there.
Enter the Gambian giant pouched rat, the latest weapon in the war to remove more than 100 million landmines scattered in some 60 countries that kill or injure an estimated 50 people daily. Leaders of 143 countries met in Nairobi in November to plan the next steps in their global campaign. They started off in Africa because a very large chunk of mine-affected countries in the world are actually in Africa. And of these countries a lot have really dilapidated infrastructure because of that. There is a sense of priority for Africa. That is also why they looked for an animal that would thrive well in Africa and thrive it does. The rat's home range is found throughout much of Africa. It gets its name from the large pouches on the inside of its cheeks, which it uses for carrying food. Easily tamed, the animal is a favourite in the pet trade.
The idea occurred to Weegens as he realized that rats were both easy to train and had an excellent sense of smell. Combining these two would, he considered, provide a cheap way to detect unexploded mines and limited danger to human life. He founded APOPO, which is a non-profit organization, the aim of which is to train up African Giant Pouched Rats and to deploy them in the field. Not only would the rats be a cheaper alternative to mine clearance methods already in use? He figured that they would be considerably more efficient as well. An army of sniffer rats, would, it seemed save hundreds if not thousands of human lives. Not bad, considering that rats do not generally have a great press with a lot of people.
Having said that, the Giant Pouched Rats used in this project are only a distant relative of the common rat we hold in such great esteem. It is an intelligent species and easy to train – with many new recruits easy to breed. The female of the species can produce up to ten litters a year. Although this is a scary fact, only one to five arrive with each litter, despite the mother having eight nipples. In many African countries they are kept as pets but also are predominantly used as a food source. Perhaps the mine field is a better option than the casserole dish after all.