Faces of Africa – Fidelis, APOPO & the Hero Rats

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1950

The number of landmines buried in Africa alone is in millions and that has led to tens of thousands of casualties. These landmines were planted mostly during wars in the colonial period.

Decades later, these explosive remnants still remain in the earth, maiming and killing those who stumble on them. This is an obstacle to economic development because vast lands are left bare yet they could be utilized for income-generating activities.

In order to curb this problem and provide a safe solution, a non-profit organization named APOPO was established in Tanzania. The organization is the brainchild of Bart Weetjens, who had taken a keen interest in exploring solutions for the global landmine problem, which still affects some 60 countries in the world.

Fidelis with one of the Hero rats. He works for APOPO, a non profit organization in Tanzania that trains rats on detecting landmines and tuberculosis.
Fidelis Ghally with one of the Hero rats. He works for APOPO, a non-profit organization in Tanzania that trains rats on detecting landmines and tuberculosis.

APOPO uses rats’ technology for humanitarian purposes such as clearing landmines and detecting tuberculosis.

“I knew rats were highly sociable, intelligent and very friendly creatures that were keen to perform simple tasks in return for food and water,” told the founder of APOPO, Bart Weetjens.

Fidelis Ghally is a local Tanzanian who had worked with APOPO for seven years. Before joining, Fidelis worked with the Norwegian People’s Aid, training dogs to locate explosives. This made him a well-acquainted trainer of animals for landmine removal.

A hero rat enjoying his reward after detecting a landmine.
A hero rat enjoying a banana as a reward for detecting a landmine.

When he moved to APOPO, it took him time to get used to the rats. But rats held an added advantage over dogs in mine detection. This is because they are easy to train, cheap to maintain, too light to set off landmines and are insusceptible to diseases.

During training, Fidelis and his colleagues are assigned to rats and they begin familiarizing them to sight and sound at a really young stage. They are then trained on scents.

Here, the rats are specialized in smelling TNT for landmine detection or sniffing out positive TB samples. The final stage of the training is where they have to do a blind test for accreditation. They are then taken to a small piece of land with buried tins scented with TNT and expected to find them.

APOPO workers socializing with rats.
APOPO workers socializing with hero rats.

Once they do, they qualify to be hero rats in land mining. The rats are able to communicate to a deactivation worker by either scratching or sniffing in the air. Then with the sound of a clicker, they are given food rewarded – usually a banana or peanuts.

“The accuracy of these rats is very good,” Fidelis Ghally comments.

Due to the efficiency of The African Giant Pouched Rats, in 2005, APOPO established a TB research and training facility in Morogoro. This is because there was a need for a faster and more efficient way of detecting sputum in TB samples. Then later in 2016, a laboratory was opened in Dar es Salaam that serves up to twenty-four clinics, thus increasing the TB case detection.

A hero rat sniffing in the air, an indication that it has spotted a landmine.
A hero rat sniffing in the air, an indication that it has spotted a landmine.

Tuberculosis being the second largest infectious killer in the world, the rats are trained to identify positive TB samples.

“We see an advantage of finding around forty percent TB positive samples among what was considered negative by the hospitals,” says Dr. Georges Mgode, manager at APOPO Tanzania TB program.

A hero rat ready to help detect tuberculosis in the sample holes. Rats are efficient in detecting sputum in TB samples.
A hero rat ready to help detect tuberculosis in the sample holes. Rats are efficient in detecting sputum in TB samples.

APOPO has successfully deployed this rat technology to Angola, Mozambique, and Cambodia, destroying over 100,000 landmines and clearing close to 22 million square meters of land that has been released to local communities.

Whether it’s in the lab, or on the field, these Hero rats use their extraordinary sense of smell to save human lives.