Rats are normally classified as vermin, but they can be heroes too. Proving the fact is APOPO, a Belgian NGO that trains African giant pouched rats to sniff out landmines and tuberculosis infections. Since 2006, these ‘hero rats’ have been working on minefields in Mozambique, clearing the country of over 13,000 landmines, thus reclaiming over 11 million square meters of land. They’ve also accurately analyzed over a quarter of a million blood samples for TB infections.
Bart Weetjens, founder of APOPO, first came up with the idea of training sniffer rats a couple of decades ago, when he was a student at the University of Antwerp. He used to keep pet rodents as a boy, so he knew that they were “very trainable, sociable, and intelligent creatures.” So when he read an article about gerbils being taught to recognise the scent of explosives, it got him thinking.
Weetjens wanted to use his experience of dealing with rodents to find a locally-sourced resolution to the problem of landmines. “I was looking for an appropriate solution that communities at the bottom of the pyramid could use, independent from expensive foreign know-how and technology,” he said. So he placed himself in the situation of the people affected by the problem, and looked at the resources they had at hand.
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