Rats replace dogs to sniff out buried mines

In a field about 40 miles west of the town of Chokwe on the Limpopo river in Mozambique, a large rat scurries along the ground, its nose and whiskers twitching. It stops, sniffs excitedly and then scratches at the ground.

The rat is wearing a harness and leash. Its handler, clad in bomb-proof gear, pulls it over to the side and rewards it with a piece of banana. Another person in a protective outfit goes over to where the rat stopped and scratched and carefully digs up an anti-personnel mine.

The animal is an African pouched rat 2ft 6in (75cm) long. It is the latest weapon to neutralise the millions of unexploded landmines across Africa and the rest of the world. They have killed or maimed thousands, especially in Mozambique with an estimated 500,000 buried mines and in Angola with millions more.

Frank Weetjens, a Belgian who is in charge of the experiment near Chokwe, says the rats are better than dogs at sniffing out mines. They are cheaper, smaller, more port-able, harder-working and, at 3lb (1.35kg), light enough not to detonate a landmine when they walk over one, he believes.

Mr Weetjens and his team from the NGO Apopo have only been experimenting with defused mines. But he is encouraging about his rat sappers. The rats are harder-working than dogs, he says, because they do not get bored so quickly with the repetitive tasks required of them; they seem to enjoy the work, so long as they are rewarded with food every time.

Apopo (the Flemish acronym for anti-personnel mine product development) has been doing its main research at Sokoine University of Agriculture in Tanzania for five years. There it has been training about 300 African pouch rats and several handlers. Mr Weetjens and his team brought 12 rats and four trainers to Mozambique in March to start the test programme under field conditions. The tests are far from over, but the team is keen to move on to real demining.