Rats have been effective in the detection of antipersonnel mines and home-made explosives in Mozambique, Africa, and based on the experience an estimated 700.000 square metres (70 hectares) have been cleared.
“Rats and their unique smelling capacity have proved very effective in Mozambique so the successful experience has been taken to eleven other African countries” according to the director and founder of the rat antipersonnel mines detection system Bart Weetjens.
Besides Africa, “we have managed some funds to work in Thailand and we are holding talks with Colombian authorities to begin sweep activities”, said Weetjens during the Ottawa Convention Review conference currently taking place in Cartagena, Colombia.
However Weetjens admits that the main obstacle the program has met is people’s rejection to rats, “but reality has proven that it is far cheaper to sweep minefields with this kind of animals than with other methods”.
Anyhow the battle against people’s resistance to rats “is being gradually won” he said. “Rats are very intelligent, light and even when they are seen as a plague, they love humans and humans really need them”, said Weetjens.
“We tried with hamsters, rabbits, but rats proved the brightest”.
According to international protocols two animals are needed to circulate along a given plot of land searching for explosives, and for that purpose rats are ideal according to the industrial-designer originally from Belgium who lives in Mozambique.
Weetjens said that at the moment the project has “215 of these rats, focused on mines detection and in combination with other demining equipment have enabled a much quicker sweeping process”.
But it’s not any rat: it must be the African rat which is larger than the common species, can be sighted from further distance and lives up to eight years which makes its training more cost effective and lasting.
“The good news about the mined fields is that everything has a smell, an odour and can be detected by the African rats. We are considering the possibility of training them to detect other explosives used in other countries, including substances used to try and mask the original smell”, said Weetjens.
Training one of these rats for explosives detection can take up to eight months and the daily cost of feeding one of them can be estimated in 1.4 US dollars per day, “which makes it far cheaper than any other system”.
Weetjens said that rats’ smell-detection condition has been used for years but it was only a decade ago that it was put to practice with explosives.
“We have quite a good idea of the kind of explosives used by insurgents in Colombia so it shouldn’t be difficult to help detect the mined fields”, said Weetjens.
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