Rats to the rescue

Wildlife and conflict rarely add up to ‘good news’ stories but the Pouched Rats of Africa provide a heart-warming version of the ‘swords to ploughshares’ theme and claim the title of ‘HeroRATS’.

Normally these rats, which can grow up to a metre long, are viewed by humans as a ready source of food and protein across their wide distribution area in Africa.

There are two Pouched Rat sub-species: the Gambian Pouched Rat which is also known as the African Giant Pouched Rat, and Emin’s Pouched Rat, also known as the African Pouched Rat.

Though Pouched Rats have very poor eyesight they are very ‘intelligent’ and have an incredible sense of smell: it is with these last two attributes that have come to assist humans, specifically in mine-clearance.

Following an intensive training process the rats are able to sniff out the TNT explosive in mines under the supervision of a human handler; being relatively light the rats do not detonate any mines as they scurry across the minefields. Once the mine is detected it is tagged and then destroyed.

The idea started by a Belgian engineer-Zen Buddhist monk, Bert Weetjens, who founded the APOPO charity to support the work in 1997. The first mine clearance work began in Mozambique but has now expanded across the world; in addition the rats can detect symptoms of tuberculosis. Jasper Humphreys, The Marjan Centre.

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