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01/03/2014

How rats save lives in Africa and Asia

Rat

An African Giant Pouched Rat on the job in Tanzania. (Courtesy of APOPO.)

Meet the African Giant Pouched Rat, and consider what it can do.

It can sniff out the presence of the tuberculosis bacterium in samples of human sputum at a pace that is many times faster than a human researcher can manage.

According to one estimate, a single African Giant Pouched Rat needs just 10 minutes to test the same number of samples that a bipedal lab technician in a white coat would need an entire day to work his or her way through.

The main reason is simple: rats have an extremely acute olfactory sense. What’s more, they’re smart. An African Giant Pouched Rat needs just nine months of training in tuberculosis detection in order to be fully qualified for the job. Better yet, the creatures live on average for eight years, which means they can keep performing their TB-detection duties for a fairly long time.

That’s the good news.

And the bad news … ?

Well, there doesn’t seem to be any. There is just more good news.

Also known by its scientific name – Cricetomys gambianus – the African Giant Pouched Rat is also highly effective at sniffing out landmines. Pretty big for a rat – it weighs about one kg. – the creature is still light enough in weight that it is unlikely to detonate an explosive device. That’s another plus. It means that, after detecting one landmine, it remains physically intact and can promptly start snuffling around for another.

Given this impressive collection of attributes, you might think that some innovative and altruistic organization would come along and recruit the African Giant Pouched Rat to perform services for the benefit of humankind.

And that is exactly what happened. The organization in question is a Belgian NGO known as APOPO that trains and deploys the rats in various African and Asian countries. Its name is the Dutch acronym for Anti-Personnel Landmines Detection Product Development.

Ranked Number Eleven on a 2013 list of the world’s top 100 NGOs, the outfit is headed by Bart Weetjens, a Belgian national who first came up with the idea of using rats in this way.

The mine-detection rats – known as MDRs – have been active in Angola, Cambodia, Mozambique, and Thailand, all of which have serious problems with undetonated explosive devices buried under portions of their national territory.

The TB-detecting rats are being deployed in parts of Mozambique and Tanzania.

As for the organization’s slogan, it is both catchy and a little off-beat.

“We train rats to save lives.”

Oakland Ross is a foreign affairs reporter for the Toronto Star.

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