Nautical charts of the coastal waters of the Eastern United States still mark the positions of unexploded depth charges from WWII. As long as you are not on a fishing trawler or incredibly unlucky about you drop your anchor, these pose a minimal risk to human life and property. On the other hand, there are upwards of 20 million land mines strewn across half the countries in Africa, and these are by no means precisely mapped. Landmines kill or maim tens of thousands of civilians every year. I remember parts of northern Namibia in the early 1990s that had not been de-mined, were unavailable for cultivation, and that produced new casualties every month. Cambodia, Afghanistan, Angola and Mozambique are among the most heavily mined countries on earth, and the social and economic consequences of land mines for these under-developed nations has been likened to a pandemic.
De-mining resources are expensive, limited and insufficient to the daunting task of clearing mined land decades after the armed conflicts when the explosives were laid have ceased. Affordable, effective mine detection methods are desperately needed. The Belgian de-mining research group APOPO, whose Flemish acronym translates: "product development geared toward the de-mining of antipersonnel mines", has hit on a novel solution with mine-sniffing rats.
The Gambian Giant Pouch Rat is as large as a domestic cat. They apparently make good pets. According to APOPO,
"Compared to dogs or mechanical sensors rats have many potential advantages. They have a highly developed olfactory organ, they are small and as such, easily transported and accommodated. A rat kennel can be relatively small and still facilitate a high number of rats: 20-30 rats can easily be transported in one car. Second- or third-generation rats that have been socialized are friendly and easy to respond to for humans. More specifically, African Giant Pouched Rats are endemic in Africa and resistant to most tropical diseases. Another advantage they offer is that they are easy to breed and train due to their explorative behaviour and good search motivation. Another asset is their ability to remain concentrated for longer periods of time. And finally, they are trained on food reward and as such do not bond to an individual handler, so that in an operational stage, one handler could deal with many rats consecutively."
Results have been very encouraging in Mozambique where the rats have been deployed. The New York Times did an article two years ago about the field trials and so far each rat is averaging an 80% detection rate and less than 10% false detection. Using three rates at a time yields nearly 100% detection rates.
A gift in support of these mine-sniffing rats will be among my charitable donations this holiday season. You can do so here.