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Landmine sniffing rats in Mozambique

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Landmine sniffing rats in Mozambique

Post by shammy on Thu Jun 05, 2008 3:15 am

Three-year-old Samo scurries across a grassy field, his nose twitching furiously. Hooked up to a harness, he darts back and forth across the roped-off minefield — then, suddenly, he freezes in his tracks, sniffing the air. After a concentrated pause, he scratches vigorously at the ground, a signal to his handler, Shirima Vendeline Emmanuel, who stands in a safe zone a few yards away that he has found a landmine. "Good boy, Samo," shouts Emmanuel, as he scampers over to receive his reward — a banana. Samo is not some exploited child-soldier, however; he is a bristly giant Gambian pouched rat.

Mozambique's brutal 16-year civil war may have ended in 1992, but the country's villages, farming land and transport system remain covered by thousands of minefields. Some were planted decades ago by the Portuguese colonial army, others, later, by the forces of the Frelimo government and their South African-backed rebel opponents. The wars may be over, but their ordnance continues to kill and maim Mozambicans and prevent them from farming their land.

Once in the ground, landmines are devilishly hard to get rid of, and efforts to remove the estimated 100 million buried around the world have prompted many an outlandish innovation. A Cambodian newspaper once proposed bringing over British cattle suffering from mad cow disease to roam the countryside setting off an estimated 11 million mines buried there. More conventional approaches to demining all have their flaws. Armored mine-clearance vehicles only operate on flat terrain; metal detectors are terribly inefficient because they pick up all the non-lethal bits of metal in the ground; dogs can smell the explosive in a land mine, but tend to get bored and run the risk of getting themselves blown up.

So when researchers from the Sokoine University of Agriculture in Morogoro, Tanzania, began training rats — known for their keen sense of smell — for the job, the Mozambicans were willing to give it a try. "Rats are intelligent, and they like to learn new things," says Jared Mkumbo, a Tanzanian who supervises the training of the rats and their handlers. "You can train them to do exactly what you want them to do." The project, run by an organization called Apopo, which is funded by the Flemish government in Belgium, is proving so effective that a new batch of mine-sniffing rats is scheduled to be deployed in Angola later this year.


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