Keys Giant Mutant Rats Detect Land Mines and Tuberculosis

The untrained African Gambian pouched rat is what sort of animal? Something humans should be fearful of?

The wild rat -- you don't want to approach. They are quite snappy, they will bite, they will scratch, they're very protective of their young, especially mothers. They're not the nicest animals in the wild. That being said, there are ones that have not had human contact in the past, so they can be a little more docile than others, but in general the most they'll do is break the skin with a small bite.

Land mines aren't talked about a whole lot in this country. How big a problem was this for you guys to look at rats as a solution?

There're still about 45 million landmines in the world currently, so it is a huge problem. There's a lot of countries still planting them and even more militant groups still using and implementing landmines in conflict situations. And so as fast as we can pull them up, they're still being planted and it's going to be a continuing humanitarian disaster for dozens and dozens of years. It's a very slow and dangerous process to remove the landmines because they are buried and they've shifted. We don't have good information as to exactly where they are planted. That's why the rats are so important to that. You're right, land mines aren't talked about a lot in the U.S. and the U.S. is actually one of the only remaining countries and the last developed country to not ban the use of the implementation of land mines. There's an international campaign where over a hundred countries have signed and the U.S. has not signed onto that.

We train our rats in Tanzania, but there aren't any landmines in Tanzania so we send the rats to Mozambique and Angola and in the next two-three months we'll be sending them to Cambodia to start operations there as well. In Mozambique, we've been demining for the last 10 years and we've found over 3,000 land mines and cleared over 8 million square meters of land in that particular country. In Angola, we actually just started so we've only been operational for about two months and we've found a few land mines and cleared a few square meters but we won't have actual reporting numbers for the next few months.

Photo by Briana Marie Forgie

How dangerous is all of this for the rats? On the one hand, folks here maintain they need to be eradicated (and probably rightly so, given that they're undomesticated and nonnative), and the other hand any animal activist would be up in arms about that. Is your method really safe?

We place a very high value on animal warfare and we make sure the rats are well treated and well taken care of. The rats are actually too light to set off a land mine so we've never lost a rat in action, both in land mine detection and tuberculosis detection. That's in terms of the actual operations, now of course, rats get sick like anybody else or any other animal and then they do die occasionally due to illness but we've never lost a rat to a land mine.

I read that APOPO started in 1998 but didn't begin tuberculosis research with rats until 2004. How'd that come about?

We realized that TNT has a pretty strong odor which is what the rats are trained on in the actual landmines and we wanted to see if rats can also be used in another very significant humanitarian problem such as tuberculosis. Even humans can smell tuberculosis a little bit, in very late stages of the disease there becomes a very strong odor, so we put two and two together and figured, let's give it a try. The rats have found a total of over 5,800 positive patients originally misdiagnosed by local hospitals in Tanzania and Mozambique since 2007. In 2013 alone, they found over 2,300 patients that can now receive treatment.

Take a look at this jaw-dropping video we came across that its founder did with the Economist in 2010:

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