Image: HeroRAT Froome training to detect mines in Tanzania

These Heroic Rats Save Lives by Detecting Land Mines and Tuberculosis

Step aside Remy from Ratatouille and Templeton from Charlotte’s Web! These rescuer rats might not be nearly as famous, but their work is saving many, many more lives.  

An encounter with a rat never seems to be a good thing these days. Whether they’re scurrying under a car on your walk home or searching for food in the subway, these rodents are the type you usually want to avoid. They smell bad, they scurry under your feet, and they want your snack, desperately

But could rats be getting a bad rap these days? As it turns out, nonprofit APOPO has been training rats for years to detect unexploded land mines and sniff out tuberculosis, saving thousands of lives each year. 

Image: One of APOPO's Mine detecting rats training in Tanzania
One of APOPO’s mine detecting rats, Froome, training in Tanzania
Courtesy of APOPO.org

African giant pouched rats (named for cheek pouches used to carry food, not because there’s any kangaroo-like business going on) 1 are now being used to detect unexploded land mines and tuberculosis. Light on their feet, these animal heros don’t weigh enough to set off the land mines, making them perfect for the task. 

Image: One of APOPO's rats sitting on a man's arm. The man is dressed in bomb gear.
Courtesy of APOPO.org // Photo by Aaron Gekoski

One rat named Magawa even won a PDSA Gold Medal for “animal bravery” for his work in Cambodia, sniffing out 39 land mines and 28 unexploded munitions in his career. 2 In doing so, he became the first rat (and first non-canine) to earn the prestigious honor. You just can’t make this stuff up!

After the rats of APOPO (nicknamed “HeroRATs”) are trained, they go on to work around the world including places like Mozambique, where they discovered 13,000 land mines to be diffused and destroyed. With this effort, APOPO was able to declare the country mine-free!

We get it, it’s cute. But what problems do they solve?

1. Unexploded Land Mines

Unexploded land mines are a big problem. These explosive remnants of war (ERW) “don’t distinguish between soldier and civilian, farmers at work or children at play. They recognize no ceasefire.” 3 They make land that would otherwise be used for agriculture unusable, prevent access to water sources, keep infrastructure and schools from being built and therefore (in some countries) contribute to low education rates. 4

So not only are they deeply dangerous, but they prevent the communities where they lie in wait from moving on and growing in meaningful ways. And this isn’t an issue isolated to Mozambique. More than 65 countries are contaminated with land mines and ERW, 5 and in Cambodia alone, there are estimated to be more than 6 million. 6

To date, APOPO’s HeroRATs have discovered more than 108,000 of these devices, allowing them to be discovered peacefully and diffused effectively, with no one getting hurt in the process. 

2. Tuberculosis

Tuberculosis remains one of the world’s deadliest infectious diseases, second only to COVID-19. 7 Mainly affecting the lungs and causing deadly coughs, chest pain, trouble breathing, and a myriad of other nasty symptoms, 8 TB kills nearly 1.5 million people every year. 

But the rats and team at APOPO have been able to increase case detection by nearly 40%, or more than 18,000 people who hadn’t been originally diagnosed. And as with most diseases, early detection is critical to effective treatment. 

But why rats?

Why not other mammals like dogs, or why not the easy answer: humans? According to APOPO, rats are perfect for the job for more than a few reasons. 

Image: A rat sniffing around in a minefield, wearing a harness directed by an APOPO worker.
One of APOPO’s HeroRATs, Samia, sniffing for land mines
Courtesy of APOPO.org

First, they are light – too light to set off the land mines when they walk over the buried explosives. This means they can notify humans of the locations of these mines without any danger of setting them off. 

Second, their noses work like a charm. These super sniffers can detect the presence of food in your house from outside the home, and have even been shown to be able to detect incoming changes in the weather based on smell alone. 9 And their sense of smell is good enough to pick up on the very early bacteria of Tuberculosis 10, similar to the way a dog can smell and detect cancer.

Third, rats are easy to train and care for. They’re intelligent, live a long time (6-8 years), are widely available and easily transferable between trainers, are cheap to feed, breed, and maintain, and are indigenous to sub-Saharan Africa and therefore resistant to most tropical diseases in the area where they work. 

And last, they’re fast. On the land mine front, a HeroRAT can search a tennis court-sized area in 30 minutes, when it would take a human 4 days to effectively cover that same area. And on the tuberculosis front, a real-time alert from a rat is leagues quicker than detection procedures in developing countries, which are often slow and inaccurate. 

These many characteristics make them the perfect superheroes for a hard job, no cape needed. 

Without further ado, let’s check out these super sniffers in a phenomenal look into the life of a HeroRAT from training to discovery, in this video from VICE News. (And trust me, they’re CUTE.) 

Via: VICE News 11

Shoutout to VICE News for an incredible look into the lives of these life-saving rodents and the incredible trainers who make it all happen. For more insightful looks around the world, check out the VICE News YouTube channel

Image: A man working with APOPO with a rat sitting on his shoulder.
Mine detecting HeroRAT Samia with APOPO worker, Said.
Courtesy of APOPO.org

Looking to support the HeroRATs and HeroDOGs (and in our opinion, Hero Trainers!) of APOPO? Here are a few ways you can support the efforts! 

  1. Donate directly to APOPO. Every donation contributes to helping these rats and trainers keep doing their valuable work. 
  2. Adopt a HeroRat or HeroDog to get a sweet package from APOPO and regular updates on the impact your furry friend has made.
  3. Give a Hero Gift, which allows you to specify what you’d like your donation to help with, be it a basket of bananas for the rats to eat, a health check to keep them in tip-top shape, a nest to keep them warm, or any of the other great options that APOPO needs help with to keep these heroes healthy and happy. 

To learn more about APOPO’s work, visit their website here.

Soon, these rats will be expanding their work to include prevention of illegal wildlife trafficking. They might even get into search and rescue, detecting humans buried under rubble in natural disasters and alerting those who can help. This means these rats are going to continue their amazing work to keep saving human and animal life alike. 

Now, we’ve seen many examples of animals and humans teaming up for the greater good before. The obvious example is the sweet service dogs out there who help blind people, those with PTSD, or those with other illnesses navigate the world safely, But when you get into the innovations and amazing stories, you learn that there are also dogs who can sniff out cancer in its early stage, and falcons who keep you safe when traveling by plane. There are beetles who are teaching us how to solve the water crisis, and even a whale who saved a diver from a shark

It seems clear that from land to sea, we share this planet with some incredible creatures. And teaming up with those creatures in innovative ways can improve all our lives, whether you’re a human, a dog, a whale, a bird, a bug, or yes, a rat. 

For more articles about animals doing amazing things, check out these articles next! 

Meet the Wildfire Hero Who Wears a Shell Instead of a Cape 

The gopher tortoise may not look like your average hero, but when forest fires threatens their neighbors, their special skill comes in very handy! Here’s how to use your strengths for good. 

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These Rescued Horses Could Save Your Life One Day!

This organization is helping rehabilitate abandoned, abused, and neglected horses into some of the most highly valued animals on the frontlines of search and rescue and firefighting! And their recipe for success could be a beacon for progress far beyond the world of animal rescue.

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A True Tale of Finding a Best Friend in a Beluga Whale

Can an unlikely friendship help save an entire species? When an aquarium trainer met her counterpoint in a friendly beluga whale, a bond was formed that can teach us more than we ever dreamed possible. Let’s dive into a real-life story that will have you heading to the nearest aquarium in search of a new best friend!

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So maybe next time you see a rat or mouse scurrying around when you go to catch the train or get something from your garage, you won’t turn up your nose at them. Maybe, you’ll think about the work their noses are doing to save lives around the world, and thank them instead. 

  • Ellen

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Notes:

  1. “African Pouched Rat | Rodent | Britannica.” Encyclopædia Britannica, 2022, www.britannica.com/animal/African-pouched-rat. Accessed 22 June 2022.
  2. News, BBC. “Magawa the Mine-Detecting Rat Wins PDSA Gold Medal.” BBC News, BBC News, 24 Sept. 2020, www.bbc.com/news/world-54284952. Accessed 22 June 2022.
  3. “What Is the Impact of Land mines, Explosive Remnants of War (ERW) and Unexploded Ordnance (UXO)? – Ask DAG!” Un.org, 2022, ask.un.org/faq/14493. Accessed 22 June 2022.
  4. “International Campaign to Ban Landmines – Why Landmines Are Still a Problem | Problem | ICBL.” Icbl.org, 2020, www.icbl.org/en-gb/problem/why-landmines-are-still-a-problem.aspx. Accessed 22 June 2022.
  5. “Research Guides: Landmines and Explosive Remnants of War: Statistics.” Un.org, 2022, research.un.org/en/mines/statistics. Accessed 22 June 2022.
  6. News, BBC. “Magawa the Mine-Detecting Rat Wins PDSA Gold Medal.” BBC News, BBC News, 24 Sept. 2020, www.bbc.com/news/world-54284952. Accessed 22 June 2022.
  7. “Tuberculosis Remains One of the Deadliest Infectious Diseases Worldwide, Warns New Report.” European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, 24 Mar. 2022, www.ecdc.europa.eu/en/news-events/tuberculosis-remains-one-deadliest-infectious-diseases-worldwide-warns-new-report. Accessed 22 June 2022.
  8. “Tuberculosis – Symptoms and Causes.” Mayo Clinic, 2021, www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/tuberculosis/symptoms-causes/syc-20351250. Accessed 22 June 2022.
  9. Benedict, Stu. “Https://Www.trulynolen.ca/How-Good-Is-a-Rats-Sense-of-Smell/.” Truly Nolen Canada, Truly Nolen, 13 Oct. 2019, www.trulynolen.ca/how-good-is-a-rats-sense-of-smell/#:~:text=In%20fact%2C%20rats%20have%20such,detect%20changes%20in%20the%20weather. Accessed 22 June 2022.
  10. Dunn, Rob. “Sick People Smell Bad: Why Dogs Sniff Dogs, Humans Sniff Humans, and Dogs Sometimes Sniff Humans.” Scientific American Blog Network, 2012, blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/sick-people-smell-bad-why-dogs-sniff-dogs-humans-sniff-humans-and-dogs-sometimes-sniff-humans/. Accessed 22 June 2022.
  11. News, VICE. “Giant Rats Are Sniffing out Landmines and Tuberculosis.” YouTube, 25 Nov. 2020, www.youtube.com/watch?v=GBqMJjfSgYY. Accessed 22 June 2022.
Published: June 27, 2022

Image: Ellen Allerton

Ellen Allerton

Chief Operating Officer

After graduating from St. Lawrence University in 2020 and returning home to Vermont, Ellen found that helping make the world a better place with the Goodness Exchange team was just where she wanted to be. You can usually find her watching television while getting crafty, on the ice as a figure skating coach for 10-14 year old's, or in her inflatable kayak named Heidi. She's quite the film nerd and quite the cook, and likes it best when those two things - movies and food - coincide.

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