Hauling myself out of bed at 6am to go visit a field of rats was never something high on my agenda.
This week, though, I’ve been working in Morogoro, a city about 4 hours west of Dar es Salaam. It’s home to Sekoine University of Agriculture (SUA), which happens to be globally renowned for its pioneering work in the use of rats for the detection of landmines and of disease (particularly tuberculosis). I was talked into a visit of their training facility, ‘apopo’.
As the sun came up over the spectacular Uluguru mountains (Morogoro sits within the Mikumi National Park), the team of around 20 trainers started their daily routine with the current cohort of 30 ‘heroRATS’, as they’re known.
Once I’d reined in my (irrational, I guess) phobia, I actually found the whole thing fascinating. Here’s what I learned:
- The species SUA use is the ‘African Giant Pouched’ rat (yep, that didn’t make me feel any more comfortable). Apart from uniquely having cheek pouches in which they store food, they have a particularly good sense of smell and level of intelligence, are suited to the types of climate where mine detection work is needed and have strong resistance to disease.
- Rats, unlike dogs, are light enough to walk over a mine without it being triggered and so can pin-point exactly where it’s located. They detect the smell of TNT and so, unlike metal detectors, don’t waste time investigating other scrap metal. As a result, in 20 mins they can search an area that would take 4 days with a metal detector.
- Training starts when they’re a few weeks old. They need to be bred in captivity; socialization is critical, and they can’t be trained from the wild.
- At any one time, there are around 30 or so in the different stages of training. It’s a structured three-level ‘course’, with rigorous tests at each point. It takes on average 8 months to train them and they have a working life of about 6 years. Around 100 are trained each year. Each one is individually named by the trainers.
- The large open-air training area is divided into rectangular ‘boxes’ in which are buried mines (real TNT but, thankfully, not live). The training involves methodically walking the rats through the boxes and meticulously recording any scratching. The rat wears a harness, which is attached to a rope suspended between two trainers. When it identifies a mine that is known to the trainer (not all are – some of the testing is done on a ‘blind’ basis and computer checked later), they get a reward (usually a banana or peanuts).
- They get rewards, but never punishment since apparently that will trigger a breakdown in trust and they’ll refuse to work. (And they apparently have a long memory!) Rats are nocturnal and susceptible to cancer if exposed to intense sun, hence the training needs to happen early in the morning.
- Apart from landmine detection, SUA is also training rats to identify tuberculosis. Rates of accuracy are currently 60% (and increasing), vs 40% using the standard microscopic procedure. Turnaround times are 2-3 hours, vs a four-day average wait for traditional test results.
It was pretty inspiring to see the work being done here. Over the last 18 years, SUA has been sending rats to Angola, Gaza, Cambodia and Mozambique (which has recently been declared mine-free) and countless lives have been saved. It’s a not for profit organisation, and you can even adopt your own rat (https://www.apopo.org/en).
It may take more than this morning’s visit to rid me of my phobia. But I have to say I do have a new-found respect for our rodent friends. And Kudra, here, was very well behaved on my shoulder (I bet she didn’t need any special oflactory gifts to smell the fear…)