To most people, rats are considered vermin. But to Belgian engineer Bart Weetjens, who spent much of his boyhood raising rodents, rats presented the most logical solution to the key challenges of humanitarian de-mining. While his early proposal to train rats to be mine detectors was laughed at by donors, his persistence finally secured a research grant from the Belgian government in 1997. With this money, APOPO was born. Approximately 1.3 million acres of land are mine infested. The main de-mining method, manual clearance, is expensive and slow. To reduce risks and increase efficiency, dogs have been trained to work alongside humans; yet trained dogs cost up to $40,000, are prone to tropical diseases, and can easily set off a land mine.
APOPO’s cheaper, quicker, lighter and more scalable technology relies on the keen smell and (relatively) long life of the African Giant Pouched Rat, which is endemic to sub-Saharan Africa. After six years of deployment, the organization’s HeroRATs have helped return more than two million square meters of suspected minefields to local populations in Mozambique. Not content to rest on its laurels, APOPO has also begun to train its HeroRATs to detect Tuberculosis (TB) in human sputum samples, offering a faster, more accurate diagnostic method that has already been shown to significantly increase TB diagnosis rates.