Africa’s notorious pest turned furry saviour - CNBC Africa

Africa’s notorious pest turned furry saviour

Southern Africa

by Jay Caboz 0

There are rats in Camatenda, clearing minefields. PHOTO: Jay Caboz

Gatuso the rat looks hungry and he has a job to do; it’s 6AM and he’s been up all night as nocturnal rats do – now he’s ready for a hard day’s work in the field. He looks harmless as his whiskers twitch in the light of dawn. Most people fear to tread where he works.

Clearing landmines is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. Gatuso takes it on with a sniff. The rodent has a natural advantage; he weighs less than 1.5 kilograms, too light to trigger a mine. There are 10 rats like him in Camatenda, clearing minefields so people can till the earth once again.

It takes nine months and more than 8,000 US dollars to train a rat to find a landmine. In the field, they are harnessed to a pole, like a dog on a leash, to keep them in their lanes. What Gatuso and his fellow rats do is sniff out the gunpowder beneath. The moment the rat scratches at the landmine, the engineer squeezes a clicker. When the rat smells the gunpowder and hears the click it knows it will get food.

The idea occurred in an unlikely mind in a pub in Scotland. Bart Weetjens, a former product designer from Belgium and a Zen Buddhist monk, heard about the ability of the gerbil to sniff out explosives while at a conference on technology development sensors. Weetjens had bred pet rodents as a child.

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Weetjens is no stranger to Africa. As a student, he spent three months in the Congo building a soy bean mill for rural farmers. He knew Africa needed to get rid of its deadly landmines and he wanted it to be cheaper and more efficient. 

“Rodents are of course everywhere. In a moment I saw [landmine clearing rats] happening. However, between the first pitch and the first grant was two and a half years,” says Weetjens.

With a million Belgian francs (33,700 US dollars), Weetjens set out to find the perfect rat for the job. The Cricetomys gambianus, the African giant pouched rat, met the standard.

“At that time, there were so many scientific questions that had to be asked first… I knew I wanted to use rats. But the rodent is the most diversified species in all the mammals so I went to a specialist, Professor Ron Verhagen, who worked in Africa for a long time studying all kinds of rodents. He saw a villager with a giant African pouched rat on a leash. So we said, at the very least, it must be possible to domesticate this species.” 

In 2000, after three years of work, Weetjens trained his first rats in Morogoro, Tanzania, through his company APOPO. Since then, landmine clearing rats have unearthed at least 3,212 mines, 1,077 UXOs (discarded bombs and grenades) and 26,934 small arms and ammunitions. They’ve worked in two of the world’s most landmine infested countries: Mozambique and Angola. Eighteen more rats will soon be working in Cambodia One rat can clear up to 400 square meters a day. An engineer, with a metal detector, can only do 25 to 50 square meters.

APOPO’s contribution to the landmine clearing business is relatively small, says Weetjens. The company has an income of around 9.1 million US dollars; Angola receives 659,264 US dollars of this. According to Weetjens it’s a small part of the 800-950 million US dollars business that is made of mostly NGOs.

“The majority of our expenses are in Mozambique [5.3 million US dollars]. Because of the scale of our operation; in Mozambique there is a fully integrated approach with manual clearance, mine detection rats and vehicles. In Angola we only have our essential rat services,” he says.

In Africa, Angola is the ultimate test for the rats. The country endured a brutal civil war for nearly 30 years, until 2002 and has millions of mines to prove it. No one really knows how many mines are in Angola, not even the experts, because soldiers scattered them across the country like seeds. It is estimated there are 10 to 20 million. It’s the third-most landmine laden country in the world, according to Landmine Monitor. 

In 1997, Landmine Monitor estimated 110 million active mines were scattered in 68 countries. An equal number of landmines are thought to be stockpiled by governments. In 15 years, engineers have destroyed 47 million, but millions more lurk in countries like Iran and Afghanistan. 

For the people of Camatenda, 400 kilometers east of Luanda, the landmine is a neighbor. Gatuso works in a 194,000 square meter field covered with three-meter-high grass and the odd cassava crop. The farming area, which grows food for 34 families, is now slowly being cleared and will one day produce more. A wooden stake tipped with red paint marks the ground that has been cleared. APOPO works with the Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA), deactivating mines in this region since 1994. The rats have amazed Austragildo Freitas, APOPO Field Operations Manager, who fought in Angola’s civil war and has cleared mines for his country for 19 years.

“The rat detects only the scent of explosives and not any other objects, while in comparison with metal detectors that can pick up anything with metal in the field. If you use one car to transport three dogs you can use the same car to transport 15 rats. The food for dogs is very expensive and must be imported while the rats can use local food,” says Freitas.

The rats of Camatenda have different personalities, says Alfredo Adamo, Operations and Training Field Supervisor at APOPO. In the world of landmines and rats, Gatuso is seen as the Lionel Messi in Angola. He’s certainly found more mines than the Argentinean has scored goals. Adamo’s star rat is able to pinpoint mines within centimeters. Others can only manage an accuracy of 30 to 40 centimeters. They also lack Gatuso’s flair.

“He’s our best pole rat. I like the way it walks in the field. He’s always active and never misses. Some of the others dawdle, but not Gatuso,” says Adamo.

The rats work best at dawn. When the temperature hits 32 degrees Celsius it’s too hot for them. At the other end of the pole, it’s too dangerous for engineers to work at night. The rats are wide awake then but you can’t see what they are doing.

The rats can also be fussy.

“Some go for bananas, others like peanuts or apples. It’s why trainers started carrying different types of food for each rat,” says Adamo.

Rewarding rats can be a problem. Engineers must be able to give food when a landmine is found. A false reward could also knock the rat’s sense of smell. This is why rats will not be rewarded on the minefield, but only in regular training sessions where the locations of the mine are known.

Rats are not the only animals that have proven themselves in the minefields, says Hannes Slabbert, Canine Business Manager at MECHEM in South Africa.

“A rat is able to detect any target odor for which it is trained, maybe just as well as a dog. But so can elephants, pigs and honey bees,” says Slabbert.

MECHEM have been training dogs to sniff out explosives and drugs in airports since the 1960s. They have also been used to hunt rhino poachers in South Africa’s Kruger National Park and cleared mines in countries like South Sudan, Angola and Mozambique.

It costs Slabbert 12,600 US dollars to keep a mine detection dog in action for six years. This includes their food and the vet. He has seen dogs clear 2,500 square meters a day and as much as 4,000 square meters on a good day. Dogs can sniff out landmines in the extreme heat of deserts for up to six hours at a time.

“Dogs work to please the handler and receive a ball reward, now and again. Rats work for food… I am of the opinion that there is a place for rats, but I do not see them replacing dogs,” says Slabbert.

The path of rats in Angola is far from smooth, says Francisco Gregorio, APOPO’s  Program Manager in Angola.

“Rats are a unique thing in Angola. We have not experienced rats before and this is the first time we are experiencing anything like its kind. But the process went on in a satisfactory way. We were to start operations in January, but we did not receive the letter of approval from national authorities. We just got it at the end of February and consequently deployed the rats in the field,” says Gregorio. 

Rats can also be discriminated against. In parts of Tanzania, the African giant pouched rat is endangered species, it’s considered to be a local delicacy. Weetjens also says that many think that APOPO are a pest extermination company.

It’s not always a hard day’s dig for the rodents. On Fridays, the rats party after work, like everyone else. They are rewarded a large meal over weekends.

On this day, Gatuso has to be patient, its 30 degrees Celsius already, the sunlight is blinding and its only Tuesday. There is plenty of work ahead before a brief respite under the cool shade of an umbrella.

An engineer straps on his harness. Gatuso runs up and down the field and digs furiously when he catches the whiff of gunpowder. The rat may not eat many bananas today, but he will on another day. Not a bad bargain for clearing fields and saving lives; especially for the people living in the ever safer village of Camatenda, who may soon be able to once again till their grandfathers’ fields. 

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