Meet Abraham, a hero rat

This morning I met Abraham:

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He has just detected an anti-tank mine. As soon as he sniffs TNT, one of his trainers sets off a clicker. When the rat hears the sound, he scurries over to be hand fed a miniature banana. 

This five-month old African Giant Pouched Rat, so named for its chubby cheeks, is only in training, but one day will do this same job in a real minefield detecting real mines, in order for them to be safely removed.

I saw him being trained this morning in Morogoro, Tanzania, which I visited with a small group of journalists. We are all on a fellowship organised by the International Reporting Project. The trip is about food security and agriculture, but some of us couldn’t resist an excursion to see the much-reported “hero rats” in training, so off we went at a very early hour.

Belgian NGO Apopo started its rodent training programme in 2000 and has so far deployed the rats in Mozambique, Angola and Thailand, with surveys taking place with a view to using them in Cambodia as well.

As we were shown around the training centre early this morning in the rain, we learnt that in additional to a tough multi-stage training process, each country requires the rats to be accredited to their own standards - to double check they are able to detect 100% of explosives. (Of course, the consequences should they miss a mine, or even bullets left on the ground, could be catastrophic.)

The rats have large, sensitive noses, and even in their cages you can see them constantly sniffing around them, making their whiskers vibrate.

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Native to Tanzania, the rats would in the wild use their extraordinary noses to look for food. The trainers at Apopo have for the last 13 years harnessed that talent to search out land mines and even detect tuberculosis.

Without the rats, humans have to painstakingly cover every inch of land suspected or known to be riddled with mines, using metal detectors. The downside of metal detectors is they detect metal - not explosives. So all metal has to be found and removed - the rats can focus in on the dangerous material. The rats can cover a 5 metre by 20 metre square in a matter of 10 minutes EDIT: 40 minutes, according to the training supervisor today. The same job would take humans with metal detectors three or four days. 

When the rats are used in a minefield, metal detectors are used to clear a safe lane for human passage. Then the trainers and rats can go in. At the training field, real TNT is used - but the mines have been decommissioned, so they won’t actually explode.

Even so, the training centre has been designed to closely mimic the conditions rats and their trainers will find in the field, so the trainers only walk on the safe paths, and visitors are also asked to treat it as a live fire environment.

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Each rat spends about 30 minutes detecting mines, until their concentration flags. In real mine detection situations, where setting a foot wrong could be deadly, this is about how long the human detectors last as well. 

Just like any bomb clearance programme, there are casualties. During the visit we heard that a few years ago one of the rat handlers died after accidentally stepping back out of the safe, cleared lane. (No rats have died as a result of stepping on the mines -  they are too light to set off the mine, says training supervisor Vendeline Shirima.)

Some of the trainers have gone out to work with the rats in the minefields. But we heard it can be difficult for the Tanzanian trainers to get work visas in the countries where Apopo operates, so often the organisation trains locals.

The rats are specially bred for the programme and trained from the point at which they first open their eyes. The "soil floor search" stage of training we saw today involved the rats in harnesses, scurrying along a wire between two trainers, one on each side of the test mine zone. As the rats are trained, they are expected to cover first a 3-metre-wide stretch, then a 5 metre stretch. Eventually they move onto advanced training, where they are at the end of a pole, and can access more awkward areas.

How long it takes before the rats are ready to be deployed depends on the rat, explains Shirima. The same applies to how fast they can detect mines. ‘They vary from one rat to another rat,’ as he puts it.

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[Edited Friday 4 October, to clarify that it takes the rats 40 minutes to cover a 5m by 20m space, instead of 10 minutes.]

I am travelling in Tanzania as a fellow of the International Reporting Project.