When the first of Apopo’s furry and four-legged HeroRats were released into a landmine-ridden field of Mozambique, there was understandable skepticism among the various government officials in attendance.
“In Mozambique we eat rats,” joked Alberto Augusto, the director of Mozambique’s national demining institute, “so it was very strange to see them working and demining. We were thinking to grill them.”
But as the gigantic rodents (bigger than New York City sewer rats) stuffed into tiny harnesses began to sweep back and forth on ropes between their human handlers, stopping every so often to scratch and point out a landmine, it didn’t take long for the crowd to be convinced.
“These are not normal rats,” Augusto declared. “They are very special rats.”
The HeroRats are officially known as Mine Detection Rats (MDRs), specially trained by Apopo, a Belgian NGO that researches, develops and implements detection rat technology for humanitarian purposes like demining.
Landmines continue to be one of the world’s most dangerous weapons, especially in post-conflict countries. Scattered across 78 countries, these weapons of war can remain buried beneath the surface for decades, and their deadly nature does not diminish over time. According to The International Committee of the Red Cross, more than 800 people are killed and 1,200 maimed by landmines every single month - most of them children, women, and elderly.
The sleepy African coastal nation of Mozambique remains one of the most heavily mined countries in Africa. Tens of thousands of landmines were laid during the struggle for independence between 1964-1975 and the civil war that followed for nearly two decades. With no maps of mined territories, Augusto says working to clear the entire country is a “major challenge.”
Yet since Apopo’s rats launched into action in 2006, they’ve successfully cleared more than 6 million square meters of Mozambique’s countryside, uncovering 2,406 landmines, 992 bombs, and 13,025 small arms and ammunitions.
“They are doing a great job,” Augusto says, and with their help he believes Mozambique can be mine free in less than 20 years.
‘Smart, yet dumb’
Removing mines is actually the easiest part of de-mining. The hardest part is finding out where they are.
Over the past two decades, hundreds of millions of dollars have gone into research to improve landmine detection and save lives.
According to Apopo’s CEO Christophe Cox, when the organisation began researching the use of rat technology in the early 90s, dozens of universities were working on new demining technologies like thermal image processing, laser detectors, and so-called Nuclear Quadropole Resonance, a chemical analysis technique.
“We’ve been the only new technology that’s made it to the field out of those hundreds and hundreds of efforts,” claims Cox.
The problem with introducing new technologies is that there is no one size fits all approach, says Guy Rhodes of the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining, who has acted as a consultant for organisations in several countries. Specifically, it is very difficult to develop one technology that can deal with the mines of different type, age and scattered in environments that can range from sandy deserts to dense jungles.
“There were big hopes in demining technology” he says. “But there are so many variables that while there may be advancement in one element, there are still major limitations in others.”
Currently, there are myriad ways to detect landmines, including manual techniques – for example, humans with metal detectors and prodders or specially trained detection dogs - and enormous mechanical vehicles like the US State Department’s ‘Hedgehog,’ essentially a modified John Deere tractor with an armored cab and a side-mounted attachment arm for demining tools.