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  • Writer's pictureZoe Cawthorn

Rats Who Save Lives: How Hero Sniffer Rats Clear Killer Minefields

Updated: Apr 21, 2020

Highly trained rats have been deployed across three continents, to sniff out the potentially lethal explosives used in landmines, saving thousands of lives every year - without harming the rats. These amazing rodents, named HeroRATs and trained by the wonderful NGO 'APOPO', have also helped clear the landmines from a major elephant migration route in Southern Africa, and enabled farmers to regain over 2,500 hectares of farmland.

One of APOPO's HeroRATs with handler. Photo: APOPO.

Worldwide, 59 countries are contaminated with hidden landmines and other explosives, which have been left there after wars. These unexploded devices lie buried in the ground and, when stepped on or disturbed, they kill or injure thousands of innocent people every year. Around half of these accidents involve children.

In 1995, Belgian product designer Bart Weetjens was exploring solutions for the global landmine problem. As an owner of pet rats, he came across a publication using gerbils as scent detectors. He realised that rats - intelligent, cheap and widespread over the world, - could be highly suited to detect landmines. After successful training and trials, Bart went on to set up APOPO. By 2006, APOPO were clearing land mines in Mozambique, using the rats' incredible sense of smell to seek out explosive devices, which they are perfectly safe from thanks to their small size and low body weight.

APOPO and their partner organisations have since cleared landmines and other unexploded devices from areas of Vietnam, Thailand and Loa PDR. They are now working in Cambodia and in Angola, removing landmines left behind after the Angolan civil war.

Luisa's Story

Luisa Manuel (Quitexe, Angola). Photo: APOPO

65-year-old Luisa Manuel is the head of a large Angolan family, providing for ten children and numerous grandchildren. Before the civil war, Luisa’s family enjoyed a comfortable life, farming the same land worked by her ancestors. But that all changed over 30 years ago, when landmines were planted around Quitexe by the Angolan Armed Forces to protect it from the rebels. As the rebels moved closer to the town, and eventually attacked, Luisa’s terrified family were forced to leave, sheltering in the woods or in swamps as they fled.

“There was so much violence, and hatred… we ended up on the streets of Uíge, with nowhere to live. We begged to survive, gathering whatever food we could to feed the family." - Luisa Manuel.

When the conflict ended in 2002, the family set about rebuilding their lives but struggled to access the fertile land safely because of the landmines laid all around the village. They had to stick to known footpaths that would get them through the minefields safely to land they could farm – a two-hour walk each way.

Luisa said: “Hardly ten meters from our house were the trenches and I knew there were landmines near the trenches. We'd even seen them when people around us initially tried to plough the land or take shorter routes to the forest to collect mushrooms and firewood or draw water from the river. I knew two people who ventured off the paths, stepped on landmines and died. The landmines continued to threaten our livelihood and safety as we lived in fear of injury or death by the same landmines that had been laid to protect us. I found it very hard to feed my family. Then APOPO came... when the news arrived from our community leader that the minefields had been cleared by APOPO, everyone was extremely happy and excited. Now, because of the work that APOPO did here, I have no fear for my family's safety."

APOPO clear suspect areas zone by zone, clearing bush and then sending in the rats to detect the mines. The rats indicate landmine locations by scratching at the ground. This allows deminers to remove the devices, with humans and rats safely out of the way. These amazing HeroRATs are trained to sniff out TNT (explosive) rather than metal and never miss a mine. This means they can cover an area the size of a tennis court in under 30 minutes, while a human with a metal detector would take 4 days.

"Once again, I have hope for the future and my dream for Angola to be cleared of landmines.” - Luisa Manuel


APOPO's African Giant Pouched Rats are trained with a clicker technique and food rewards. Training takes an average of 9 months and costs around 6,000 euros for each rat. Before being deployed to a real minefield, the rats must pass a test to find all target landmines in a 400 square meter area. These incredible rats have detected over 100,000 potentially lethal devices, which were subsequently destroyed. Learn more about the HeroRAts training programme:

Saving Elephants

With sufficient funding, APOPO's next project will be in Zimbabwe, where HeroRATs will help to save the lives of wild African elephants.

Millions of landmines were laid in Zimbabwe during the 'Liberation War for Independence' of the 1970s. The Rhodesian military created lethal barriers along Zimbabwe’s border with Mozambique to keep Liberation Forces at bay.

APOPO plan to work in the Sengwe Wildlife Corridor, a designated area that allows free movement of wildlife between South Africa’s Kruger National Park and Zimbabwe’s Gonarezhou National Park, a route used by the parks' 11,000 migrating elephants. APOPO's task is to clear a 37km long, 75m wide strip of land, contaminated with thousands of landmines per kilometer. Clearing these landmines will provide safe access for the elephants, boost much needed ecotourism, offer safety to local people and return them their lost farmlands.

Saving People

APOPO's HeroRATs have freed over 1 million people from the threat of explosives. But these rats have another amazing skill. They have the ability to detect tuberculosis (TB) in sputum samples and can check 100 suspect samples in 20 minutes. A lab technician using microscopy takes up to four days. The rats enable patients to be treated more promptly, increasing their chances and rate of recovery. The HeroRATs have identified over 18,000 TB patients that were missed by conventional microscopy and APOPO has raised detection rates of partner clinics by 40%. Read more about the APOPO's TB project on their website.

APOPO's mission is to develop detection rats technology to provide solutions for global problems and inspire positive social change. If you would like to help them with this mission, visit their shop, send a donation, or even adopt one of their wonderful HeroRATs.

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