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Front Line

Front Line

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Published by Inne ten Have

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Published by: Inne ten Have on Sep 23, 2009
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INTERVIEW Bart Weetjens
Bart Weetjens with reporter Alexis Bloom
"In the village of Malpoolenge in Mozambique, there was one mineaccident near the water pit, and the whole village moved away from theirhomes to live in a refugee camp … In the end they only found three moremines. So, a total of four mines in the vicinity of the water pit made25,000 people move away from their normal habitat."
 As director of the Belgian APOPO demining operation, Bart Weetjens witnesses every day the unique abilitiesof the African giant pouched rat. But he also sees the lasting effect land mines can leave on communities andpeople. In this interview with FRONTLINE/World reporter Alexis Bloom, he talks about how one land mineincident can force an entire community to disperse. He also addresses the obstacles he faced in getting theprogram running and argues that rats are a misunderstood species.
Q: Alexis Bloom: Bart, how would you describe the ideal APOPO rat?
 A: Bart Weetjens: The ideal rat is one that is not too nervous and one with an extremely keen sense of smell, because there’s a huge variation between animals. Not all rats are suitable to work as mine detectors. It alsohas very stable behavior and interacts well with human beings.
Q: Can you explain the process of demining and how the rats operate?
 A: The rats work in sections, 100 square meters at a time. They are 5-by-20-meter or 10-by-10-meter boxes.Each box takesabout 25 to 30 minutes to get through. As a comparison, a miner would be able to get throughabout 50 square meters a day.
Q: So when they smell that explosive in the ground, they think they’re going to get food?
 A: Yeah, they associate this particular explosive scent with the food they want.
Q: Sort of like Pavlov’s dog?
 A: Well, yes and no. It’s classic conditioning. We associate a click sound with the food reward. Once an animalknows that the click means food, whatever behavior it does to get that click, it will repeat because it knows it
 will get food.
Q: Couldn’t that be a problem, though? They could just scratch randomly to get the foodreward instead of indicating the presence of explosives.
 A: They don’t, though. Animals are far more honest than humans. These rats, they’re just … they’re nicecreatures. There’s a lot of misperception about rats. And that originates from the Middle Ages, when rats wereaccused of transmitting plague -- which is, by the way, not true. It was the fleas on the rats that transmittedthe plague, not the rats. The rats were just victims. Of course, they do destroy crops and do transmit diseases.But if you treat them well and give them the proper housing and the proper care, they are actually very organized, neat animals. They’re very kind also, and they have very complex social structures.
Q: With your history and training as a product designer, where does your interest in working with mine detection rats come from?
 A: When I was a boy, I had a passion for rodents. One day I was given a hamster, and I was so fond of thishamster that I gave it another hamster as a playmate. Soon, I had a lot of hamsters. And I also brought insome rats, some gerbils, some mice -- which I kept until I was about 14 years old.
Q: How did that early interest turn into your life’s work?
 A: Well, I was working as a product engineer, designing coaches, travel buses, and I wasn’t really happy there.I didn’t really feel like I was contributing to the real world. At the same time, in the ’90s, there was thisgrowing consciousness of the land mine problem and the devastating consequences of land mines in Africa. Idecided that’s what I wanted to work on, so I gave up my job and started focusing on the land mine problem. I visited Angola and Mozambique, and I saw, for instance in Mozambique, land mine detection groups working with dogs. They had lots of problems with the dogs, particularly health problems. They had brought in 20dogs, and after three months they only had 13 left. Seven dogs died from disease. At that moment I hadn’tmade the link yet towards rats. That happened only after reading articles of American scientists who, in the’70s, had trained gerbils for the purpose of explosive detection in airports. That for me was a match. Of courserats could do that job.
How did people respond to your idea about using rats? Did you have to overcomeprejudices?
 A: Yeah, lots; in the beginning it was really tough. Everywhere I went to apply for funding, we were justlaughed at. Most institutions were very, very reluctant [to sponsor] such an approach. But I got support fromprofessors at Antwerp University. And, via the vice chancellor, we also got access to the DevelopmentCorporation desk in Brussels, who finally gave us a one-year grant. Not a huge grant but sufficient for us tostart, to prove that it would be possible. With that first grant, we imported rats from Tanzania and started a breeding program in Belgium. The youngsters we started making hand-tame. In the meantime, we tried outdifferent species of rats and all different training protocols. And when we applied them to the African giantrat, we were successful. After two years, we had sufficient proof to bring the program to Tanzania and tocontinue developing it with the Africans.
Q: Why did the African giant rat work? What is it about their behavior?
 A: Well, for example, when we reward them with peanuts, they don’t eat them immediately. They keep them intheir pouches until they reach their nest box and then bury them there to store for later. And in rainy season, when food is plenty, they go around and collect a lot of food in their pouches and store it underground in burrows. Later, in dry season, when food is scarce, they can find their way back to these stores with only theirsense of smell. So this is very close to land mine detection.
Q: In addition to the direct detection system of identifying contaminated areas on site, youalso run a remote tracing system. Can you tell us about that?
 A: The system is called REST, for Remote Explosives Scent Tracing, and it can hopefully speed up the wholedemining process incredibly. Let me tell you, about 95 percent of a suspected area doesn’t contain any minesor explosives at all. So, if you can open these areas, already, 95 percent of the problem is resolved. In order todo this -- and rather than going [physically] everywhere, which takes a huge amount of time -- we haveconceived of this system, which consists of taking a sample in an area, bringing it to the lab and letting the ratsanalyze it. When several rats in a row say this sample doesn’t contain any explosives, we can take it for grantedthat the stretch of road doesn’t contain mines, bombs and so on. There is huge potential for quickly scanning vast road networks across Africa, which is especially important because the roads provide access to the villages. With an open road network, people can resume economic activity. So road infrastructure is essentialin development, especially in Africa, where already there is a fragile infrastructure. So say, for example, youhave about 4,000 kilometers of suspected roads. If you have to clear all of these manually, it’ll take a few hundred years. This system is an attempt to find technology that can deal with the problem in a very fast way.

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