By Gao Zhu and Li Sibo
April 4 is the International Day for Landmine Awareness and Assistance in Mine Action sponsored by the United Nations, a Chinese reporter visited Morogoro, Tanzania for this year’s event.
APOPO, a non-profit social venture based in Tanzania, is conducting special mine sweeping training and exercises using a group of giant pouched rats.
Over 20 giant pouched rats with an average length of 25 centimeter and weight of 1 kilogram are receiving training here and expected to help eliminate hidden mines.
There are also many animals that can undertake mine clearance work. The most important of them are dogs and rats.
At a mine clearance training base in Morogoro of Tanzania, each rat must go through a physical examination and have its weight measured before putting into the training program. Sunscreen is applied on their ears and tails.
APOPO staff said that giant pouched rats are nocturnal animals, taking into account the strong sun in Africa, training is conducted only from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. while the sunscreen can protect the rats against sunburn.
A lawn within the training ground scattered with defused mines is divided into dozens of simulated minefields with an area of about 200 square meters each.
Before a giant rat enters the simulated minefield, the trainer attaches it to a leash. Due to their keen sense of smell, the rat trainees are able to quickly and accurately locate the mines containing trinitrotoluene (TNT) explosives and scratch the ground to indicate the locations of the mines.
During the training on April 4, a giant rat located all the landmines in the 200-square-meter training field in less than 20 minutes. The rat ran around, sniffed a bit and stopped. Then, it used its front claws to clear the blades of grass and topsoil to discover the mine. It would be awarded a small piece of banana for each successful discovery.
Such training lasts for nine months. The trainer said that the rat trainees must pass the final test before officially becoming minesweeping rats. The examination venue is a training ground with an area of about 800 square meters, where there is one to four landmines for per 100 square meters. The giant rat must find all of them, and is allowed to make no more than two mistakes in locating mines for every 100 square meters.
A senior researcher with APOPO said that giant pouched rats have poor vision but are highly sensitive to smell, through training, they can quickly identify the smell of explosives under the soil. In addition, their light weight lowers the probability of triggering landmines and therefore the dangers of demining can be greatly reduced.
The researcher introduced that the traditional method of minesweeping with a metal detector is time-consuming and laborious, and it is difficult to avoid the interference of other underground metal objects.
In contrast, minesweeping rats have significant advantages. Compared with minesweeping dogs, giant rats have lower breeding costs and are less dependent on trainers. They can complete minesweeping tasks in different regions without specific trainers. It takes up to half an hour for a trained giant rat to check a standard tennis court-sized minefield.
At present, minesweeping rats have been sent to Mozambique, Angola, Cambodia and other countries to join demining operations. Thirty-seven were sent to multiple countries in 2016, where they detected over 34,000 landmines and duds left over from wars in minefields with a total area exceeding 960,000 square meters.