Ed. note: GenevaLunch was on the ground this week in Cartagena, Colombia where the Geneva International Center for Humanitarian Demining joined the Colombian Government in welcoming heads of state for the Summit on a Mine-Free World
by Jared Bloch
Cartagena, Colombia (GenevaLunch) – The Apopo organization was among the myriad governments and NGOs on hand to review progress made in the past four years in implementing the Ottawa Convention to ban use and stockpiling of anti-personnel mines. Apopo is notable for its innovative use of rats in the field of mine detection.
Bart Weetjens, Apopo founder and conference delegate, told GenevaLunch that rats are playing an increasingly important role in the effort to rid the world of the risks posed by anti-personnel land mines. Weetjens is a product design engineer by training, and a Buddhist monk. He founded Apopo 12 years ago in response to the need for accessible, low technology innovations for humanitarian demining.
Rats have long been known to possess highly evolved olfactory senses, and they present a low-cost alternative for mine detection in developing countries. Weetjens says, “We have rats all wrong. They are quite intelligent animals and in fact are quite sociable.” Rat motivation is quite simple: they follow the crumb trail, as it were, back to their cage. The training process for the “Hero Rats”, as they are known, has a precise set of steps that leads to each rat’s accreditation for demining work. The animals are socialized at the young age of four weeks, taught to associate the smell of food with a clicking sound, and the clickers are then used in training the rats to recognize TNT. After eight months of training they can smell extremely tiny amounts of TNT.
Rats are natural candidates for mine detection: they are light enough so that they will not set off land mines, they have excellent olfactory senses and can locate the explosives in much the same way dogs do. They are relatively easy to train according to Weetjens, and they are cheap.
Apopo, which has attended the humanitarian demining roundtables in the past as an unofficial observer, was formally invited to the Conference in Cartagena. Belgium and Africa-based (Tanzania, Mozambique) organization focuses on promoting demining efforts in Africa because of the heavily affected regions there and the lack of infrastructure to address the problem. Weetjens notes that demining action is a highly technical field. He says he spent two years raising funds and advocating the use of Hero rats before his efforts were taken seriously. Today, Apopo’s main funding comes from the Belgian and Flemish governments, UNDP (United Nations Developent Programme) and the Geneva Center for Humanitarian Demining. Apopo has a staff of 140.
“If we continue to conduct demining efforts on an inch-by-inch basis we will be at this for hundreds of years,” Weetjens says. While up to 97% of the territory in mine-affected areas is often found to be physically mine-free, demining operations have to cover the larger space. Rat technology is proving to be a highly effective tool for large-scale mine detection, and finding large-scale solutions is an important component of Humanitairian Demining’s framework land release strategy. “Rats are an excellent risk management resource,” says Weetjens.