Guardian Weekly, January 26-February 1, 2007, Page 17.

Sniffing out trouble
Fabienne Pompey Guardian Weekly

On the Apopo website the organisation's founder Bart Weetjens explains how a childhood interest in rats and the subsequent discovery of the suffering caused by landmines sparked the idea of using sniffer rats to help with mine clearance. That was almost 10 years ago. Now, in the Mozambique brush, some 30 rats are at work every day. Apopo is an official partner of the federal government and works with Handicap International. The rodents being used are African giant pouched rats (Cricetomys gambianus), which are very common in Africa. Too light to trip the detonators, the animals learn to detect the smell of explosives in the Apopo research laboratory in Tanzania. Training, lasting six to eight months, is based on standard Pavlovian conditioning, with rats receiving a reward of food each time they respond to a whiff of explosives. They indicate the presence of explosives by grooming and scratching the ground. "The advantage with rats is their price," says Frank Weetjens, Bart's brother, who runs Apopo operations in Mozambique. The NGO has a scheme (www.herorat.org) enabling well-wishers to adopt a rat and fund its training and upkeep for €5 a month. They say that because of rats' acute sense of smell they are better than metal detectors, which find all buried objects, not just mines. "Dogs take longer to train and cost more to maintain," says Weetjens. The rats, when not in the field, continue training near Inhambane, a small town in one of the most heavily mined parts of Mozambique. The practice area is divided into patches, separated by corridors that are already cleared of mines. Just as in "live" conditions the rat wears a harness, which is hooked up to a rope, strung between two minders who move forward 50cm at each step. The rat runs back and forth between the minders, stopping whenever it detects a mine and scratching the earth. "Rats are not perfect," says Frank Weetjens. "Ideally for mine clearance you should have . . . a dog, a rat and a metal detector. No single tool is 100%

effective. You have to adapt to the terrain, the weather conditions and available resources." No one knows how many mines were laid during the civil war in Mozambique, which ended in 1992. In 2005, despite more than 36,000 having been neutralised, mines still claimed 23 lives, including 10 children. According to the government, more than 170m square metres of land have yet to be cleared. But it is becoming increasingly difficult to raise funds. "The funding agencies are losing interest. There has been corruption and bad management, and then with humanitarian aid, one priority obscures the previous one," declares Weetjens. The United Nations predicted that Mozambique would be free of mines by 2009, but the target was recently downgraded to "free of the impact" of mines. In other words, efforts will focus on priority zones, in particular access routes to villages, water and roads. Areas that are still mined but not used will be fenced off. "I am not sure we will manage to do even that much," says Weetjens. Meanwhile Apopo scientists at the laboratory in Tanzania are looking at other ways of harnessing giant pouched rats' spectacular sense of smell. They are currently working on detection of tuberculosis in the saliva of infected people. Initial tests look promising, with the rodents detecting the disease more quickly and efficiently than a lab technician equipped with a microscope. "Estimates suggest that almost half of all TB sufferers go undetected. The idea is to set up mobile teams to carry out tests in poor urban districts, schools and prisons. But we need a year or two's work before starting in the field," says Bart Weetjens. Resistant strains of TB are once again claiming many lives in Africa, particularly among those who are already HIV-positive. Le Monde

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