There 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 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.
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