Twenty or more years after landmines were banned by the Ottawa Treaty, 29 previously mined countries have been cleared out or in the process of defusing. But despite having more than two decades of clearing, there are still millions of buried deathtraps in more than 50 nations.
Some mines are constructed from plastic materials to avoid metal detection machinery. But not even plastic can hide from millions of years of evolution, trained to sniff out the tiniest traces and leftover particles – we are, of course, not talking about dogs, but rats!
These super-rodents are increasingly being used for explosive sniffing and aren’t swayed off course by coins, nails, and other debris. They also don’t need to go slow for fear of setting off undetected mines.
These awesome rats work fast, following a rope grid, and are cheap. They’re not only good at sniffing out mines, they’re also feather-weight, meaning they won’t set off the things when they trample over them.
“Essentially we work about 40 times faster than a human with a metal detector,” says Charlie Richter, who oversees their work.
Picture a former battlefield, he said, where there would be lots of scrap metal in the ground. Detectors are constantly giving off false alarms, Richter said.
“Every time there’s an alarm they have to stop everything, dig carefully around that area, and if they don’t find a mine they continue,” he said. “With a rat, they ignore all the scrap metal, so there are far fewer occasions when they have to stop and do that.”
Bart Weetjens watched a documentary about landmines at the time the Ottawa Treaty was being negotiated, and started thinking of his own pet rats when a brilliant idea struck him.
He had already trained them to find hidden objects in exchange for treats, and it occurred to him that they might be able to do something similar with landmines. With a group of friends he approached the Belgian government for a grant to develop his idea. That was 20 years ago this month.
The organization that Weetjens formed to promote his idea, APOPO (the Dutch acronym for Anti-Personnel Landmines Detection Product Development), has demined in seven countries, including Mozambique, which was declared cleared in 2015 after the removal of about 170,000 mines.
Mines not only kill and maim, but also deny rural people the ability to use arable land, making it difficult for them to produce food.
“Having one landmine in a soccer field-sized area scares the local community and keeps that field as unproductive as having 50 landmines,” said Richter, who works with APOPO.
Now that big demining NGOs have seen the rats’ work in Mozambique, they are coming around to rodent solutions.
APOPO would like to stop being a full-service deminer, he said, and focus on its niche of training rodents in order to spread their use through the world’s biggest demining organizations.