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Demining Zimbabwe's National ParkLocated in southeast Zimbabwe, Gonarezhou National Park is home to 11,000 African elephants, which is how it earned its name as the “Place of Elephants.” Unfortunately, it is also the site of thousands of buried landmines. These landmines were placed by the Rhodesian army during Zimbabwe’s Liberation War and have remained there for more than 40 years. Although there have been efforts to remove these mines, they continue to be a constant threat to the people of Zimbabwe and local wildlife. Demining Zimbabwe’s national park will have several benefits for the country.

APOPO: Demining Efforts

The United States has provided a grant of $750,000 to the nonprofit APOPO to demine the Sengwe Wildlife Corridor, where a large portion of the undetonated landmines reside. The Sengwe Wildlife Corridor covers a stretch of land that connects the park to South Africa and is used regularly by migrating elephants.

The area that APOPO has been designated to work is one of the largest in the world: 37 kilometers lengthwise and 75 kilometers in width. With almost 6,000 landmines per kilometer, communities in the surrounding area are unable to access potential land for farming and endangered species are at constant risk.

The presence of the minefield prevents the elephant population of the park from migrating and potentially mixing with other elephant populations. This presents a long-term risk of limiting the already shrinking African elephant gene pool.

APOPO has established a five-year plan for demining Zimbabwe’s national park, expecting to remove all undetonated landmines from the area by 2025. It estimates that it will remove more than 15,000 landmines before the end of its operation in the corridor.

The nonprofit will be working in tandem with the Gonarezhou Conservation Trust to maintain that the process will not impede conservation goals for the park.

The project also complements USAID programs to support community-based natural resource management, provide climate-smart agricultural technologies and improve the value chain for communities to sell their products for a fair market price.

Poverty in Zimbabwe and COVID-19

Zimbabwe is currently facing severe economic hardships that have only worsened due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2019, 50% of Zimbabweans experienced food insecurity and 40% faced extreme poverty. This number is projected to increase as conditions worsen with the onset of the pandemic and severe droughts. Inflation in the country has been rampant, with prices of food increasing by 725%, resulting in a severe loss of purchasing power for the poor. The pandemic has impacted the already economically challenged country by decreasing trade and tourism.

Aiding Economic Recovery in Zimbabwe

The United States and APOPO hope that by clearing out the Sengwe Wildlife Corridor, ecotourism in Zimbabwe will begin to thrive. As it stands currently, only 8,000 tourists on average visit Gonarezhou National Park compared to the 1.8 million tourists that visit the neighboring Kruger National Park of South Africa. Demining Zimbabwe’s national park means providing an extended opportunity for increased tourism in the struggling country. The efforts of APOPO, with the support of the United States, may be able to help economic recovery, reduce the impact of the pandemic and uplift communities that are battling poverty.

-Christopher McLean
Photo: Flickr

How HeroRATS Are Saving LivesThere is a new solution to saving lives in countries with high rates of tuberculosis and the presence of landmines: rats. A nonprofit organization called APOPO is training these so-called HeroRATs to use their sense of smell and detect both landmines and tuberculosis. These African giant pouched rats receive training in Tanzania and Mozambique and then deploy across sub-Saharan Africa. The question is: why rats? HeroRATs are saving lives for a variety of reasons:

  • A strong sense of smell
  • Easily trainable and very intelligent
  • Impervious to most tropical diseases
  • Do not have the weight to cause landmines to go off
  • Cost-efficient to take care of
  • A lifespan of 6-8 years

Tuberculosis Detection

Tuberculosis is the world’s deadliest infectious disease. In many developing countries, the diagnosis method of smear microscopy is only 20-60% accurate, meaning that about half of the people with TB go undiagnosed. While the GeneXpert test is more accurate, it costs $17,000 for each device. HeroRATs are saving lives by rechecking human tested sputum samples. APOPO’s lab then rechecks the samples that the rats identify as positive.

APOPO says that these brave rodents increase clinic detection rates by 40%. A rat can go through 50 samples in just eight minutes. Incredibly, a rat can evaluate more samples in 10 minutes than a lab technician can in a whole day. This is all thanks to their intensive, nine-month training that utilizes operative conditioning; the rats learn to associate the smell of TB with a reward.

Landmine Detection

Not only do HeroRATs save lives by smelling tuberculosis in sputum, but they also receive the training to clear hazardous fields by sniffing dangerous explosives underground. Hidden landmines and bombs still endanger lives in 59 countries. The rats undergo training to associate the smell of the explosives with the sound of a click and a reward. Rather than metal detectors which detect scrap metal as well, HeroRATs can identify the actual scent of the explosives, leading to fewer false detections.

Since the landmines are “antipersonnel,” they target people through direct pressure or a wire. Fortunately, rats are too light to set these off. Since APOPO’s launch in 2006, the rats have cleared over 6 million square meters in Mozambique and uncovered 2,406 landmines and 992 bombs. It would take them only 30 minutes to check the area of a tennis court. In contrast, it would take a human deminer with a metal detector four days to do the same work.

Though rats may be unpopular, they are brilliant little heroes. Not only do landmines endanger lives, but they also hinder economic development in war-torn countries. Villages cannot access basic necessities like water and travel routes and cannot use the fertile land for farming. HeroRATs are saving lives, but they are improving livelihood as well.

It is possible they could be saving a different kind of life as well: that of pangolins. Pangolins are one of the world’s most poached animals. In Tanzania, HeroRATs are training to detect the scent of pangolin scales that smugglers transport into Asia. In the future, HeroRATs could also help limit smuggling and trafficking. These little heroes prove that innovation is not synonymous with technology; sometimes, even a rodent can save lives.

Fiona Price
Photo: Flickr

Tuberculosis in sub-Saharan Africa
As tuberculosis (TB) kills more than a million people each year, a new strategy to detect the disease has emerged: using rats to identify TB positive samples. TB remains the world’s deadliest disease, infecting 10 million and killing 1.5 million people in 2018. Tuberculosis in sub-Saharan Africa is also the main cause of death for people living with HIV.

In Mozambique, where 13.2% of the population has HIV, more than half of the people with TB also have HIV. Along with malnutrition and other diseases, HIV reduces resistance to TB, so people living in poverty are especially susceptible to TB. Those experiencing poverty are also more likely to have fewer healthcare options and spend most of their lives in overcrowded conditions and poorly ventilated buildings where TB can easily spread. However, TB is treatable; it just needs to be caught in time. APOPO, a Belgian NGO, works to detect tuberculosis in sub-Saharan Africa by training rats to sniff it out.

How Can Rats Detect Tuberculosis?

For nine months, African giant pouched rats are trained to sniff out TB from samples of sputum — the mucus produced from coughs. Much like the Pavlov’s dog theory, trainers condition rats to associate the sound of a click with a reward; the rats only hear a click and receive a reward when they interact with TB positive samples. The rats have to hold their snouts over the sample for two to three seconds to indicate the positive sample. To “graduate” and become heroRATS — the official name for APOPOs rats — the rats go through a testing process where they have to detect every TB positive sample among rows of sputum.

Since 2007, APOPO has partnered with local clinics that send potential TB samples for the rats to check. Health clinics perform smear microscopy tests that often come up negative when they are actually positive. The heroRATS help to correct this problem by accurately identifying the TB positive samples. Their detection rats can check up to 100 TB samples in 20 minutes while the same task might take a lab technician up to four days. After the APOPO lab confirms the TB samples tested by the rats (using WHO methods), they alert the clinic about the results. So far, the rats have screened 580,534 TB samples and prevented 126,375 potential TB infections, raising TB detection rates of partner clinics by 40%.

The Relationship Between TB and Poverty

When medical professionals are unable to detect tuberculosis and treat it in time, the disease can augment poverty rates, making living conditions even worse for people who have it. Because TB is highly contagious, those with the disease are not allowed to go to work or school, leading to a loss of income and education. The stigma surrounding TB is also detrimental; people are often excluded from the community, so they can no longer rely on support from previous outlets. APOPO’s work to increase the TB test’s accuracy and speed helps those infected to know their correct results and then seek more immediate treatment.

Progress Detecting Tuberculosis in sub-Saharan Africa

The three main countries APOPO operates in  — Tanzania, Mozambique and Ethiopia —  are all considered high burden TB countries.

  • Tanzania: Tanzania has one of the highest TB burdens in the world at approximately 295 TB cases per 10,000 adults. With a poverty rate of 49.1%, almost half of Tanzanians are susceptible to TB’s spread. To help alleviate the effects of this disease, APOPO began in Tanzania in 2007 and has since expanded to 74 collaborating clinics across the country. A new testing facility in Dar es Salaam opened in 2016 and delivers results to clinics in 24 hours. Along with increasing accuracy, the APOPO facilities and rats boost the TB detection rate to around 35%.

  • Mozambique: After its success in Tanzania, in 2012 APOPO developed programs in Mozambique, where approximately 62.9% of the population lives in poverty. In partnership with Eduardo Mondlane University, APOPO built a new testing facility on the university’s grounds in Maputo. This center works with 20 local healthcare clinics and delivers results in 24 hours, which increases the probability of the patient starting treatment because it reduces the time and effort it takes to track down a patient to inform them of the results. Due to this partnership, the TB detection rate has increased by 53%.

  • Ethiopia: With a 30.8% poverty rate, Ethiopia ranks 10th for the highest TB burden in the world. To help identify these cases, APOPO is currently building a detection facility with the Armauer Hansen Research Institute. Additionally, this center will not only partner with clinics in Addis Ababa to test for TB, but will also screen up to 52,000 prison inmates and staff located in 35 prisons across Ethiopia. At the clinics, the goal is to increase identified TB cases by 35% while developing its program to create a long term impact in Ethiopia.

Armed with its innovative thinking — and its heroRATS — APOPO is making progress in detecting tuberculosis in sub-Saharan Africa and limiting its spread.

Zoë Padelopoulos
Photo: Flickr

Landmines in Cambodia
Cambodia is a country located on the Indochinese mainland of Southeast Asia. As of 2017, the country has a population of more than 16 million people. Much of Cambodia’s landscape consists of beautiful flowing rivers and large flat plains that transition into mountains. Unfortunately, though, much of this land is unsafe for use.
During the Vietnam War, more than 26 million explosive sub-munitions fell on Cambodia. As a result of the landmines in Cambodia, there have been roughly 64,000 landmine casualties and 25,000 amputees since 1979.

In response, a group, APOPO, has been clearing landmines throughout the affected region. APOPO and other nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have cleared nearly half of the country’s minefields.

In addition to the landmines in Cambodia, APOPO has been clearing land for 20 years in over 50 different countries. It specifically targeted Cambodia because the nation has the highest ratio of mine amputees per capita. The land APOPO can clear the land efficiently and accurately with mine detection rats so that it is safe for Cambodians to use. 

APOPO’s Mission

People in areas with mines are often too frightened to utilize the land for activities such as farming, and rightly so, because there is no way of knowing where the landmines are. Many often use metal detectors for explosive detection although this is quite dangerous and time exhaustive. People have scattered scrap metal throughout the land and it often sets off the metal detectors for false positives. APOPO employs rats to detect and clear landmines in Cambodia and other countries.

The training of giant African pouched rats allows APOPO to effectively detect the landmines. Not only is this faster, but it is also much safer because it causes no harm to the rats as they are far too light to set off the mines. The use of these rats completely diminishes the additional risks to human casualty. For comparison, these mine detecting rats are able to detect mines in an area the size of a tennis court in 30 minutes while a person would take up to four days.

APOPO’s Work in Cambodia

Beginning in April 2015, APOPO launched the noble work of landmine clearing in Cambodia. This was the NGO’s first time doing work in a country outside of Africa. This project consisted of bringing mine detection rats to help a local group, the Cambodian Mine Action Centre (CMAC).

CMAC and APOPO joined together to clear landmines in Cambodia. They decided to tackle the most affected villages, which are located in the Siem Reap and Preah Vihear provinces. 

To ensure quality, the mine detection rats undergo training and performance tests over a three month period. This even included live minefield testing at the end of the training; all mine detection rats passed these tests. The CMAC used metal detectors to check all of the zones after the rats searched for mines. Results indicated that the rats did not miss a single landmine. 

So far, APOPO and the CMAC have found over 45,000 unexploded landmines in Cambodia. Through joint efforts, these groups have been able to clear mines in 15 million square meters of land. Thanks to the initiatives of these NGOs, people in these local communities will no longer fear death over simple movement throughout the village. The unnecessary risk of people losing lives and limbs completely reduces. In addition to subduing the danger imposed on the people, agriculture has the potential to flourish within these communities.

After speaking with the APOPO U.S. Director, Charlie Ritcher, he spoke about working with various other groups and NGOs. Ritcher spoke of the importance of working with groups such as the Cambodian Mine Action Centre; he felt that collaborative efforts make a more substantial impact in the fight to improve living conditions throughout the world. Combining resources allows each group to diminish redundancy, reduce time spent, improve financial situations and, most importantly, save many more lives.

Impact of APOPO In Cambodia

According to the World Bank collection of development indicators, 76.6 percent of Cambodia’s population lived in rural areas as of 2018, the primary area of APOPO’s work. Unfortunately, the rural population experiences more impoverished living conditions than those living in urban areas. Rural areas typically include poor access to proper sanitation facilities and electricity. To further outline rural circumstances, 90 percent of the poor in Cambodia live in rural areas.

In the past 20 years, these numbers have significantly decreased. From 2007 to 2014, the rate of poverty within the country dropped from 47.7 percent to 13.5 percent. Cambodia’s poverty rates have further declined as a result of the economy’s impressive annual growth rate of 8 percent over the past two decades. 

APOPO’s clearing of landmines in Cambodia further aid in improving the conditions of poverty throughout these communities. Clearing the land, which has not been safe for use in nearly 30 years, allows Cambodians to use it for agriculture to further develop the growing economy.

Cambodia has great agricultural potential because of the landscape; with vast amounts of plains and large rivers, the land is a perfect recipe for robust farming. In 2018, due to an increase in available land, the agricultural sector expanded and became 22 percent of the nation’s GDP. Additionally, the gross value rose by 4.4 percent.

APOPO is Saving Lives

After the Vietnam War, over 40,000 people have lost a limb and 64,000 have died as a result of landmines in Cambodia. A person should never fear death or limb loss to perform daily activities, especially as a result of random wartime mines.  Clearing landmines in Cambodia by using mine detecting rats allows citizens to regain a normal life and launch into a more sustainable life.

APOPO has been able to implement an innovative method to improve living conditions throughout Cambodia. A majority of the country’s population lives in rural areas where there are profound agricultural opportunities. Such opportunities have the potential to greatly reduce poverty throughout the nation.

Important work, like that of APOPO, of implementing unique and effective methods to fight against unnecessary harm that restricts people’s livelihood is key in reducing poverty and improving quality of life. 

– James Turner
Photo: Flickr

TB in TanzaniaTanzania is a country located in East Africa that is home to 54 million people. Unfortunately, tuberculosis is a big issue within the country. Tanzania currently ranks within the top 30 countries worldwide that are most affected by tuberculosis. While the national TB budget has consistently stood at around $60 million. However, NGOs like APOPO are also doing their part to fight TB in Tanzania.

Why APOPO is Needed

Historically, Tanzania has struggled to supply clinics with rapid forms of testing. But this is where APOPO helps to bridge the gap. APOPO is an NGO fighting TB in Tanzania by using specially trained rats to detect cases of the disease. Along with the work this group does in Tanzania, it also helps fight against tuberculosis in Mozambique and Ethiopia. Since the program in Tanzania first launched in 2007, the group grew from collaborations with four government clinics to 57 clinics.

How APOPO Fights TB

Many forms of testing for tuberculosis are quite inaccurate. The better quality methods of testing can be quite expensive and take a longer time to get results. Cheaper forms of testing can often yield false results. Due to cheap testing, people will be given an inaccurate diagnosis. Government clinics in Tanzania mainly use smear microscopy tests due to the test’s affordability.

This method of detection has very low sensitivity rates that range from 20 to 60 percent. To combat the current inadequate forms of testing for tuberculosis, APOPO has implemented a program that uses specially trained rats. These rats can detect cases of tuberculosis at a fast and more accurate rate.

The rats at APOPO’s facilities can test 100 samples in 20 minutes, as opposed to technicians who can only check 25 samples per day. APOPO’s labs can get test results within 24 hours. APOPO’s rats have increased detection rates of tuberculosis by 40 percent.

APOPO’s Effect

APOPO is an NGO fighting TB in Tanzania that has seen success in its initiative to incorporate innovative tactics in the fight against tuberculosis. From 2000 to 2018 there have been decreases in total incidents of TB as well as a decrease in new and relapse cases in Tanzania.

Tuberculosis currently ranks within the top 10 causes of death across the world. APOPO already works with 57 clinics in Tanzania. This group’s success through alternative methods of testing can serve as an example of how to fight against the spread of tuberculosis.

– James Turner
Photo: Flickr