By Frederico Katerere
MAPUTO, (Mozambique)20/01/2006- The much-maligned rat is soon to become a hero in Mozambique.
Rats have been trained to sniff out landmines as part of the country’s mine-clearance programme.
“In November 2003, the animals found nine mines in one day along the Limpopo railway,” said Bart Weetjens, director of APOPO, the Belgian research company that trains the rodents in Tanzania.
In an experiemental process the rats found 20 mines and other explosives along the line, which runs from Maputo port and southern Zimbabwe,and the rats didn’t miss one.
“The success of the Limpopo trials was a strong motivation for the whole team,” said Weetjens. That was a test exercise and now 16 rodents are set to tackle southern Mozambique, starting in March. Vast areas of Mozambique are still littered with anti-personnel landmines that were used during the 16-year civil war that followed independence from Portuguese colonialism in 1975.
When the civil war ended in 1994, dogs were used to demine large tracts of land, but the African Giant Pouch Rat (Cricetomys gambianus) has been found to be more effective because they’re cheaper to train and easier to maintain and transport.
It costs about US$2 000 to rain a rat, while it can cost over US$10 000 to train a dog. The rats’ training starts when they’re five weeks old.
They are trained to walk on a leash and will stop once their sensitive noses pick up the TNT that is in the buried explosive.
APOPO also plans to use the rats in other landmine hotspots, which include Angola, Sudan, and Cambodia.
Meanwhile, researchers at the University of Montana in the US are using honeybees to screen large areas of unexploded bombs.
According to the Landmine Survivors Network in Washington D.C., which is an organisation that provides counselling services to mine victims throughout the world, an estimated 80 million mines lay buried in more than 60 countries.
Each day 50 people, many of them children, are killed or maimed worldwide. – Ends