Killer rats become landmine sniffers

2015-06-02 15:49
One of the giant rats used to find landmines. (Dirk Lotriet, News24)

One of the giant rats used to find landmines. (Dirk Lotriet, News24)

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Bloemfontein - Giant rats that terrorise townships across South Africa and who have killed at least two babies and a senior citizen, have also saved numerous lives by sniffing out landmines.

Dr Nico Avenand, head of the Department of Mammalogy at the National Museum in Bloemfontein, witnessed how the giant African pouched rat (Cricetomys) is trained as a landmine detecting animal during a visit to the Sokoine University of Agriculture in Morogoro in Tanzania.

“These animals’ landmine sniffing skills have been used for a decade in Mozambique and Angola with great success,” says Avenand.

The project is the brainchild of Bart Weetjens, a Belgian who runs the landmine deactivation company Apopo.

The Cricetomys is a huge rat - it grows to more than a metre in length if you include the tail and weighs up to a kilo and a half, explaining the descriptions that come out of the townships of rats as big as cats.

But it is small enough that its size holds huge advantages above dogs in the landmine-sniffing business.

They can be trained from as young as three months, they are much lighter and therefore don’t trigger landmines and they are cheaper to train, to feed and to transport than dogs.

“And they learn the skills needed in a quarter of the time dogs take,” says Avenand. “Rats are particularly clever.”

This rat species is endemic to sub-Saharan Africa. This fact, with its relatively longer lifespan (it lives up to eight years in captivity, while other species live for a maximum of three years) guarantees a sustainable supply of rats for the demining program.

The Cricetomys is now also used for tuberculosis detection. According to Apopo’s website, one rat can evaluate more samples in 10 minutes than a lab technician can do in one day.

Read more on:    animals

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