Roughly the size of a domestic house cat, the African giant pouch rat has far superior olfactory receptors, making them ideal for sniffing out buried land mines and TNT. A few factors come into play when working with the rats: mainly that their training starts when they are pups.
Spending almost 1/9th of your life in training doesn’t seem too cost effective; however, when you take into account the success rate these resourceful rodents reach it is worth the investment.
While deaths due to buried explosives are on the decline, according to a study appearing in the 2014 Landmine Monitor report, there are still sines buried throughout countries around the globe.
The problem lies in buried explosive detection: while a stroll on the beach with a metal detector is a perfect way to spend your holiday, human mine sweepers run the risk of death or dismemberment, and move quite slowly, due in part to stopping to investigate every metal object discovered. Dogs pose a similar problem: while our four legged furry friends have a keen sense of smell, they also pack on enough pounds to set off the explosives. Which left a perfect opening for African pouched rats. These rats are light enough to not set off mines, quick enough to cover 2000 square feet in 20 minutes, and have a sense of smell strong enough to effectively locate the explosives.
Since 1997, the rats, aided by the superb sniffers have helped locate and clear over 13,000 mines in four countries: Tanzania, Mozambique, Angola, and Cambodia. While these rats have been successful at their jobs, it’s in part to the hard work that’s gone in to train them. Rats have to be trained starting at infancy. The first order of business is to familiarize the rats with their new human overlords. The second order of business is to train the rats to respond to a click, akin to training a dog, as rats don’t respond to verbal commands. The final order of business occurs when the rats become accustomed to a harness and learn to walk a roped grid.
While all this may be good, it is not without fault. The rats take nine months to train, which, while quasi-speedy, consumes 1/9th of their lives. Even with the time constraint, the rats are already having a positive impact. In addition to locating landmines, the rats have made it possible to free up land for farming. For many Cambodians, the rats have brought hope and a life with fewer chances of ending with a bang.
Header image via Global Giving