Key role of hero rats in detection of landmines, human rescue operations

Trainers of the African pouched rats busy in their work at the Sokoine University of Agriculture based in Morogoro, Tanzania. PHOTO | FILE

What you need to know:

  • The world has been seeking for appropriate means and technology for efficient detection and dismantling of landmines and explosives in order to reinstate smiles among the global community

Dar es Salaam. War outbreaks usually do not only negatively impact people’s life and the economy, but the long term effects are full of uncertainties and hence a major issue of concern.

Often, even after the return of peace, the affected communities continue to live in fear mainly due to the existence of landmines waiting to explode at any time.

These devices have continued to explode leading to semi and permanent disabilities and even death in some instances, whereby innocent citizens are the most affected.

Such incidents adversely stall implementation of development activities such as farming and livestock keeping just to mention a few.

Similarly, climate change has seen an increased frequency of natural disasters in different parts of the world including floods and earthquakes.

The world has been seeking for appropriate means and technology for efficient detection and dismantling of landmines and explosives in order to reinstate smiles among the global community.

Another technology should improve rescue operations by efficiently tracing people trapped by debris of fallen buildings following occurrence of natural disasters such as earthquakes.

In landmine and explosives detection, metal detectors and sniff dogs have been used for many decades, now, however, but new innovation involves the use of African pouched rats. This has increased efficiency, therefore increasing hope among citizens.

The African pouched rats is the technology which has been developed by the Belgian non-governmental organization (NGO) Apopo in collaboration with the Sokoine University of Agriculture (SUA) of Tanzania.

At the Morogoro headquarters in Tanzania, HeroRATs are bred and trained to detect landmines and explosives, before being dispatched to different parts of the world for detection operations.

The collaboration has now started training African pouched rats to engage in rescue operations by searching for people trapped in devastated building debris.

Why African pouched rats?

African pouched rats are considered suitable for the two operations because of developing high sense of smell, high intelligence making them to be trained easily, they are too light to set off the landmines and they are locally sourced and widely available.

They are also easily transferable, less expensive to feed, breed and maintain, they have a long life span (6-8 years) and they are indigenous to sub-Saharan Africa, hence they are resistant to most tropical diseases.

Training of heroRATS continues at SUA in Morogoro, Tanzania. PHOTO | FILE

How they are trained for landmine detection

Speaking during a recent visit at the Morogoro training field, Apopo field coordinator Gerald Mkumbo said in order for the African pouched rats to graduate in the landmines and explosives detection as well as rescue missions they are supposed to pass several training stages.

“After breeding, young rats are subjected to socialisation, clicker training, scent discrimination, soil floor training, field training and blind test,” he said.

He said breeding involves allowing mating of the captured female and male African pouched rats in order to ensure gene pool diversity.

“They usually take around five weeks to conceive. This incident will be followed by separating male rats in order to protect the young pups,” said Mr Mkumbo.

Furthermore, he said the pups will remain with their mother undisturbed for three weeks, noting that thereafter, they will commence training.


Mr Mkumbo said the first training the pups are given is socialization which takes place four to five weeks after birth.

He said at this stage the rats are carried around just to be introduced to sights, sounds, smells and noises in order to make them adapt to the training environment and get used to their respective trainers.

Basic clicker training

Mr Mkumbo said the pups will then undertake basic clicker training around 10 weeks.

The training will first include hearing clickers which is followed by provision of rewards, according to him.

Furthermore, he said the reason behind carrying this training is to enable the rats to associate with the sound and food.

“Later on the rats will be motivated to carry out training actions which include searching target scents,” he said, noting that those who give correct indications will be rewarded through provision of tasty food.

Scent discrimination training

HeroRATs who perform better in initial stages will proceed for the scent discrimination training, according to him.

He said the purpose of the training is to enable the rats to differentiate between the smell they come across with every day and scent targets.

Mr Mkumbo said at this juncture the smell would include those of trinitrotoluene (TNT) and that of tuberculosis (TB) sputum samples.

Furthermore, he said the rats will specialise either as Mine Detection Rats (MDR) or Tuberculosis Detection Rats (TBDR).

“The rats will be introduced to a strong target scent that will be gradually lowered in strength, while dummy scents are gradually added and the training area expanded,” he said, noting that eventually, the rats will be able to sniff out the TNT in real-life situations.

Soil floor training

The training field boss said achievement in the scent discrimination area would enable the rats to proceed for the soil floor training.

At this level, the rats wear a sized harness and are trained to work on the soil trays.

But tea-eggs are buried in the soil and they are encouraged to dig them up.

“Best performing rats at this level will proceed for the real field training for detection of deactivated landmines,” he said.

“They will first detect surface laid mines in a small area. They will move gradually to deeper mines in larger areas. During the process they will communicate to trainers whenever they find something by scratching at the surface above the landmine,” he added.

According to him, not all the time they are rewarded for the best performance because sometimes trainers would like to make them have a sense of the real field work.

However, Mr Mkumbo said the rats will be subjected to high standard tests after every single stage before they are allowed to continue to the next stage.

Blind test

According to Mr Mkumbo, before deploying the rats to real minefields, they are required to pass a blind test that requires them to detect the mines whereabouts are only known by the head supervisor. “In order for the rats to pass, they will be required to detect all target landmines in a 400-square metre area. They are not required to make false signs in order to graduate,” he said.

“But, failures would be required to repeat a blind test. Prolonged failures will require evaluation from a team of trainers and supervisors by outlining challenges facing a respective rat and recommended measures,” he added.

Excessive failure could lead to retiring the respective rat from operations, during which care would be taken to the rat, but would be excluded from operations.

Training rats for rescue operations

Search and rescue rat researcher Venance Kiria said increasing natural disasters globally has forced them to develop a rescue technology involving African pouched rats.

He said the technology aims to address the challenge of spending more time to reach and trace people trapped in collapsed buildings after incidents of natural calamities such as earthquakes.

“But, the size, ability and sensitivity of the rats enabling them to penetrate into small objects provide them with a competitive advantage to efficiently carry out the search and rescue operation,” he said.

Mr Kiria said the rats are trained to wear vests containing simple balls that will enable them to provide means of communication whenever they find the target (in this sense, human victims).

“The rats are trained to wear the vests and pull the balls. After becoming familiar with the smell of the target (human being) they are taught to pull the ball that produces a certain sound as a means of informing the trainer,” he said.

He said the trainer will click the clicker aimed at bringing the rat back, hinting that after human beings, the safety of HeroRATs is the second priority, “Therefore, We don’t want them injured or killed during the process. After successfully returning, the rat is rewarded with tasty food.”

How they are trained

At the training field, a building has been built containing several rooms that have been filled with different unwanted materials to reflect debris found in collapsed buildings.

HeroRATs also are made familiar to different voices common during rescue such as sirens and motor vehicles. A person hides in one of the buildings and a HeroRAT is released for the search operation from one room to another.

“The rat pulls down the ball after finding the target, which is a means of informing the handler or trainer that it has found the target. The clicker is then made to recall the rat for reward,” said Mr Kiria.

“Finally, we will go for backpack training. This is a special training that contains a micro-switch, Global Positioning System (GPS) and a tracker. These will allow a two way communication between the rats and handlers outside a collapsed building,” he added.

Furthermore, he said graduated HeroRATs will be taken to Turkey for trial and those who will pass better will determine the way forward.

Landmine detection operations

Speaking to The Citizen, Apopo’s chief executive officer and co-founder Christophe Cox said his organization started operations in Mozambique in 2015.

“In our efforts to free countries from landmines, we moved to Angola and then Cambodia. At the beginning of this year, we sent another 20 HeroRats,” he said.

The fallen HeroRAT Magawa

The most successful African pouched rat Magawa sniffed 71 landmines and more unexploded items in Cambodia during his career.

At the time of his retirement Magawa had cleared over 141,000 square metres of land, which is equivalent to some 20 football pitches.

But his trainer, Malen said the then seven-year-old was “slowing down” as he reached old age, and she wanted to “respect his needs”. Unfortunately, at the age of 8, Magawa passed away.

He was born in Morogoro Region, Tanzania in 2014 and was trained at SUA.

Magawa moved to Cambodia’s north-western city of Siem Reap in 2016, where he began bomb-sniffing career.

In 2020, the UK veterinary charity Presidential Distinguished Service Award (PDSA) awarded Magawa its Gold Medal for “life-saving devotion to duty, in the location and clearance of deadly landmines in Cambodia.”

He is the first rat ever to win the bravery gong.