Hero with an unerring nose for trouble

TANZANIA/CAMBODIA • Merry is usually up before the sun, when she and her 11 colleagues are driven to work. They work for a few hours in the early morning, napping and drinking water between shifts. Her job, detecting landmines and other unexploded ordnance (UXO), requires a laser-like focus. It also helps that at about 1kg in weight, she is very light of foot and does not set off the explosives.

Merry is an African giant pouched rat, or Cricetomys gambianus, a docile and exceptionally smart rodent with a superior sense of smell. She is one of a team of HeroRATs that are bred, trained and deployed by the Belgian non-profit Apopo, headquartered in Tanzania.

After helping to detect mines in Mozambique and Angola, the group partnered the Cambodian Mine Action Centre in 2015.

Cambodia is one of the most mine- and UXO-contaminated countries in the world. More than 1,600 sq km of the country is still contaminated by mines and other explosive remnants of war. More than 64,000 people were killed or injured by them between 1979 and February.

Harnessed and tethered to a cable that extends across a 10m by 20m grid and attached to handlers on either side, the rats work the ground with their noses, inch by inch, back and forth. They do this swiftly, checking an area the size of a tennis court in 30 minutes.

When a rat smells TNT, the explosive compound found in most landmines, it will stop and focus on that area before scratching lightly at the soil. Once the scent is confirmed, the teams begin a careful excavation to uncover what lies beneath.

"The impact has been big," said Apopo's international mine-detection rats supervisor Vendeline Shirima.

"People would say it was crazy, but when we started clearing Mozambique, they saw it was pretty amazing. We never miss mines using rats." Mozambique was officially declared mine-free in September 2015.

Specially trained HeroRATs have also proven successful at sniffing out tuberculosis in Tanzania and Mozambique.

Quick and effective, the rats are also inexpensive to feed and house. Also, they can cover more ground in a shorter amount of time than a person with a detector, speeding up operations and freeing up funds for other needs.

A special programme allows people to "adopt" a HeroRAT online and help defray the costs.

For more information about Apopo go to www.apopo.org

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 24, 2017, with the headline 'Hero with an unerring nose for trouble'. Print Edition | Subscribe