In Africa, giant rats are working side by side with humans to detect land mines in Mozambique, a country littered with explosives after decades of civil war. The Tanzanian based organization APOPO train Giant African pouched rats, a species indigenous to sub-Saharan Africa, to use their exceptional sense of smell to find the mines and indicate the location by scratching the ground. In a society that typically views rats as pesky vermin, it’s refreshing to see them praised for their redeeming attributes. Due to their negative connotation it’s often forgotten that they’re an extremely intelligent species, often misused by humans as the subjects of medical testing.
Photo credit: APOPO
Giant African pouched rats are able to effectively search for dangerous land mines due to their size, speed, and intelligence. Because they are light weight, there is no risk of the animals setting off the land mines. In the field, the rats are able to cover an area in 30 minutes that took humans multiple hours. The animals practice up to three hours a day with trainers who use a reward-based training system.
In addition to land mine detection, these rats and their unique skills are aiding science. Instead of being the subjects of medical testing, this species of rat work alongside doctors in detecting tuberculosis. According to APOPO, 1.7 million people die each year from tuberculosis and only 50% of people with the disease are diagnosed. Similar to the way dogs can smell cancer, the Giant African rats sniff out the disease in human sputum samples and indicate infected samples by scratching. The animals were able to save the lives of 2,400 people that had the disease but were missed by the conventional method of testing.
In the future, rats could provide even more valuable services to humanity. Researchers are looking into the possibility of using them to sniff out drugs or help find earthquake survivors. Could we one day see dogs and rats working alongside each other?