Heroism from an Unexpected Source

MEET THE RATS THAT SNIFF OUT LAND MINES

When you think of animals that could be considered heroic, giant rats probably aren’t the first creatures that pop into your head. Many people still think of them as filthy, disease-ridden little thieves that deserve eradication rather than a medal. But one nongovernmental organization (NGO) has proven just how heroic rats can be by training them to detect land mines and, in turn, save lives.

Over 60 countries worldwide still feel the effects of wars past every time someone steps on an unactivated land mine. Dogs and metal detectors have traditionally been used to find and safely detonate land mines in these countries, but both methods are costly and time-consuming. A human with a metal detector could take up to four days to clear a 2,000 square foot area of any land mines, and people knew there had to be a faster, safer way.

Tanzania-based NGO APOPO found the answer: African giant pouched rats. These rats have several advantages over dogs and humans when it comes to detecting land mines. While they are bigger than your average pet rat — some can be as large as a cat — they’re still light enough that they won’t detonate a land mine if they stand on one. Though they have poor eyesight, they make up for that deficiency with an incredible sense of smell. A fully trained rat can sniff amounts of TNT as small as 29 grams and distinguish it from other industrial substances like motor oil and battery acid.

Along with these innate qualities, pouched rats are easy and cheap to train. While a dog can only bond with and work for one master, rats will sniff out land mines under any person’s direction, so long as they get a tasty treat afterward. They can search a 2,000 square foot area in 20 minutes, saving humans from days of dangerous, meticulous work.

Between 1995 and 2015, APOPO’s rats found about 13,200 mines in Africa and Southeast Asia. Today, their programs are still going strong, proving that heroism can be found in even the most unlikely of animals.

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