Most people here know of rats primarily from fairytales like the Pied Piper of Hamelin and films like Ratatouille. In Mozambique the rodents are frequently spotted on the roads and are unwelcome guests in people’s homes and gardens. But rats can also be put to good use. The Mozambican sniffer rats are employed near the South African border to help humans and machines clear mines. Our colleague Silja Pieper from the German Embassy in Maputo got to see the working rats in action.
The postcards of sandy beaches and palm trees don’t tell the whole story. For the 16 years up to 1992, civil war raged in Mozambique. Although more than 20 years have since passed, some parts of the country are still contaminated by mines. The Belgian NGO Apopo has adopted an integrated approach that combines three forms of mine clearance: machines, humans and rats work together to clear minefields.
Apopo has set itself the goal of clearing an area of 2.5 million m2in 2013. This year it is receiving funding from the Federal Foreign Office and has, for example, been able to purchase important spare parts for its mine clearance vehicles. One of my jobs at the Embassy is to conclude the funding agreement with the NGO and to follow the implementation of the project. So off I set to the minefield, to see the NGO’s work on the ground.
Machines, humans and rats at work
We drive out to Ressano Garcia, near the border with South Africa. During the civil war, a huge area here was mined, because a key electricity route from South Africa supplying the South of Mozambique runs through it.
First of all, the ground is cleared of vegetation by armoured machines. Then the “manual deminers” – people with mine detectors – clear a number of corridors across this site. This is laborious work. Once that task has been completed, the rats come into play. Noses twitching, they scurry across the minefield, and whenever they find a mine they stop and scratch vigorously at the ground to signal the discovery to their handlers. A human with a metal detector then goes in to defuse the mine.
Trained for a year in Tanzania
Since rats are much lighter than people or dogs, they don’t detonate the mines by standing on them. They can sniff out all the explosives over an area of 200m2 within 45 minutes. A human deminer with a metal detector would take three days to clear the same area. Some eight million m2 of land has already been cleared in Mozambique with the help of rats – that’s about 1100 football pitches! The rats are bred and trained in Tanzania. Each rat is trained for roughly one year before being entrusted with mine detection duties.
We sadly ran out of time to visit a newly opened laboratory which employs rats to detect tuberculosis (another of their skills), but even so, I was deeply impressed by the Mozambican sniffer rats!