Food-based reward system used to train mine rats in Mozambique

2016-09-23 17:02
Picture by APOPO

Picture by APOPO

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Maputo - As with any highly-specialised training course, occasionally youngsters struggle. This time though the youngsters are rats.

Rats belonging to the Mozambique Mine Action Programme have been spending four hours a day in vital mine and explosive detection training as part of a nearly-completed project that has made heavily-mined parts of this former war-torn southern African country safe.

These are the "HeroRATs", the unlikely champions of a ground-breaking programme that relies on the now-famed intelligence of these rodents to sniff out landmines and explosives. Rats have a unique advantage over human deminers: because of their very low weight they never exert enough pressure to activate an anti-personnel landmine.

Already the APOPO (Anti Personnel Landmines Detection Project Development) rats in Mozambique have successfully seen the clearing of abandoned minefields in the provinces of Gaza, Maputo, Manica, Tete and Sofala in central and southern Mozambique.

Sixteen rats have now nearly finished working in Malhazine, on the edge of Maputo, where a series of explosions at a weapons depot in 2007 left more than 100 dead and many more wounded. The Mozambique government plans to turn the area into a nature reserve. But before that dream can be made a reality, the rats need to sniff out traces of dangerous explosives remaining in the ground.


Picture by APOPO.


The large rodents have been living a carefully-structured life attended by dedicated handlers, says project manager Ashley Fitzpatrick.

The rats are trained - or out in the field detecting explosives - six mornings a week, Fitzpatrick told News24. Sundays are rest-days for the rats, same as for the humans.

Weekday afternoons are less strenuous for the rats but they still represent full-on work for the rats' handlers: "cleaning the kennels, preparing food for the [rats] and health checks."

"The kennel is monitored 24 hours around the clock every day," Fitzpatrick says.

It's not surprising that handlers get to be attached to the rats, who apparently even get sunscreen applied to their ears to cut down the chance of skin cancer (sadly, sometimes cancer still strikes). 

Alfredo Augusto Adamo, who's a supervisor at Malhazine, says he's now fond of his charges "although it was a challenge accepting the rats as my ‘workmates’ at first". "I admire their capabilities every day," he told News24.

Adamo has extra reason to be in awe of his bewhiskered charges: he was born in an area where there were landmines.

"I knew I'd change people's lives for the better" doing this job, he explained.


Picture by APOPO

Parent rats 

So what happens if, despite all the attention given to it, a rat fails the course?

That's unlikely. These rats are almost all specially bred at APOPO's headquarters in Morogoro in Tanzania. (APOPO runs programmes in Mozambique and Tanzania, training rats not just to detect mines but also, separately, to detect tuberculosis). 

Staff select parent rats with care "to ensure eventual offspring are as fit a possible," says Fitzpatrick. Much as any kind of pedigree animal breeder would, staff are looking to guarantee things like rat temperament, performance and health.

Very occasionally, there are training hiccups. Once staff have eliminated the possibility of a health problem, they set about shoring up the individual rat's training with a technique APOPO calls "shaping". "Desired behaviours are strengthened... through positive reinforcement and a food-based reward system," says Fitzpatrick.

Titbits then, kind of.


Picture by OPOPO

Despite their age-old reputation as pests, the intelligence of rats is now well-established. 

The Harvard Business Review published an article last year suggesting that in some cases, rats were actually smarter than humans (it boils down, apparently, to being able to apply what they've learned very quickly). Rats also act selflessly to save each other from harm (even if it does mean foregoing the chocolate), the Telegraph reported in 2015. 

With its work in Mozambique nearly done, APOPO is looking to the next stage: moving to carry on their work in neighbouring Zimbabwe. The rats - or at least those of them not nearing retirement age - will go too.

Ready for the next adventure.

Read more on:    mozambique  |  southern africa  |  animals

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