Wed, May 19, 2004 - Page 16 News List

Rats take over from man's best friend

The world's first professional mine-detecting rats are being readied to tackle the 100 million mines that have been laid worldwide


A Gambian giant pouched rat searches for a landmine in a field where several defused landmines are buried at the Apopo training project in Gandola, Mozambique. The rat may be as good a mine detector as man or nature has yet devised.


Just about every method of detecting land mines has a drawback. Metal detectors cannot tell a mine from a tenpenny nail. Armored bulldozers work well only on level ground. Mine-sniffing dogs get bored, and if they make mistakes, they get blown up.

The Gambian giant pouched rat has a drawback, too: It has trouble getting down to work on Monday mornings. Other than that, it may be as good a mine detector as man or nature has yet devised.

Just after sunup on one dewy morning, on a football-field-sized patch of earth in the Mozambican countryside, Frank Weetjens and his squad of 16 giant pouched rats are proving it. Outfitted in tiny harnesses and hitched to 10m-long clotheslines, their long tails whipping to and fro, the rats lope up and down the lines, whiskers twitching, noses tasting the air.

Wanjiro, a sleek two-year-old female in a bright red harness, pauses halfway down the line, sniffs, turns back, then sniffs again. She gives the red clay a decisive scratch with both forepaws. Her trainer, Kassim Mgaza, snaps a metal clicker twice, and Wanjiro waddles to him for her reward -- a mouthful of banana and an affectionate pet.

"What Pavlov did with his dogs is exactly what we're doing here -- very basic conditioning," said Weetjens, a lanky, 42-year-old Belgian who works for an Antwerp demining group named Apopo. "TNT means food. TNT means clicking sound, means food. That's how we communicate with them."

Wanjiro has been rewarded for sniffing out a TNT-filled land mine, one of scores buried a centimeters below ground in the training field where she works out five days a week. Like all the training mines, this one was defused. But if the Mozambican authorities approve, she and her companions will move at year's end from dummies to live minefields -- the world's first certified, professional mine-detecting rats.

Indeed, in a test last November along a southern Mozambique railway that was heavily mined during this country's 17-year civil war, teams of three giant pouched rats found every one of 20 live mines in a previously unsurveyed 1,310m2 swatch of land.

"Animal detection, with dogs in particular, has increased very much in the last three or four years," Havard Bach, the top expert on demining methods for the Geneva International Center for Humanitarian Demining, said in a telephone interview. But in many cases, he said, "it would probably be better to use rats than dogs."

Rats are abundant, cheap and easily transported. At 1.3kg, they are too light to detonate mines accidentally. They can sift the bouquet of land-mine aromas far better than any machine. Unlike even the best mine-detecting dog or human, they are relentlessly single-minded.

"Throw a stick for a dog to fetch, and after 10 times the dog will say, `Get it yourself, buddy,"' Weetjens said. "Rats will keep working as long as they want food."

Plenty of work awaits them. The International Campaign to Ban Land Mines estimates that 100 million mines have been laid worldwide, from anti-personnel and anti-tank mines hidden underground to above-ground mines triggered by tripwires. Although Mozambique's civil war ended nearly 12 years ago, sappers here still discovered and destroyed more than 10,100 mines last year alone, and mine explosions killed or injured 14 people.

Experts say that the pace of land-mine detection has slowed globally in recent years, in part because the death of its celebrity spokeswoman, Princess Diana, has robbed the cause of publicity and support. But there is also a shortage of land-mine specialists, and a true dearth of sure-fire methods to find buried mines.

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