A team of researchers in Belgium has come up with an intriguing solution to help
rid the world of landmines - explosive-sniffing rats. The researchers said these
robust rodents could one day prove useful in Cambodia, one of the most heavily mined
countries in the world.
Bart Weetjens, a scientist with APOPO, a Belgian NGO, has been carrying out research
with rats in Africa for the past five years. He told the Post via email that rodents
had long been seen as a key weapon in the fight against landmines.
"Already in the 70s a group of American scientists experimented with trained
gerbils to detect explosive trace vapors," he said. "However, the idea
to use African Giant Pouched Rats for the purpose of landmine detection is absolutely
new, and originates from APOPO."
The rats work in a similar way to demining dogs, venturing on to the field to sniff
out explosives. When they find traces in the air, they scratch the earth and are
rewarded with food.
Although imminent research plans by APOPO are focused on Africa and Bosnia, Weetjens
said the team was considering Cambodia for future testing, and had contacted the
Cambodian Mine Action Center (CMAC), the government's demining operator.
But the demining community is not convinced. Khem Sophoan, director-general of CMAC,
praised the research but was skeptical about using rats here.
"I don't think it is possible because the terrain and geography in Cambodia
make it difficult," he said, "[but] we could use rats on a rope if they
are cheaper then dogs."
No one can question the country's need for assistance with its demining efforts.
Last year 828 people were killed or injured by mines and unexploded ordinance.
Mine-sniffing dogs were introduced in 2002 and have proved very successful at finding
mines buried deep, but the climate and dense greenery have proved problematic.
"The dogs are from Germany or the Netherlands," said Sophoan. "The
climate [there] is different, so the dog cannot work [here] for too long."
The rats, on the other hand, are made of hardier stuff.
"Rats are very easy to train, [and] they are easy to handle and carry,"
said Weetjens. "You can put a lot of rats in a small space, they don't require
a lot in terms of food and maintenance, and they are quite resistant to most diseases."
Weetjens explained that there were two methods for using the African Giant Pouched
Rat. Air samples from a suspected minefield could be pumped into the rats' enclosure.
Their reaction would gauge if there were explosive traces. In the second system,
the rats freely roam the minefield and are controlled by a handler on a leash.
"When the rat finds an explosives signature in the soil, it scratches the surface,
which gives the handler an indication that there is some explosive device present
in the soil," Weetjens said.
But skeptics abound. P.A. Vergstrom, a technical advisor with CMAC, saw the trials
in Africa and noted two flaws. First, the rats are driven by a need to find food,
and if they come across something tasty on the minefield they simply stop and snack,
regardless of whether explosives are present. Second, they only work if they are
"If they find a mine they will get a reward and they will get fed and they will
get full," he said, adding that it might also be difficult to convince villagers
and deminers of the virtues of rats.
Sophoan said the country needed more practical and reliable innovations, such as
technologies that identify large minefields and differentiate between deadly explosives
and harmless metal. A Japanese company recently tested ground penetrating radar here,
then went home to modify it.
"We would like to appeal to research centers to produce equipment that can take
pictures from a satellite, so we can see if it is really a minefield," he said.
David Hayter, country program manager at the Mines Advisory Group (MAG), an NGO,
expected that any demining revolution would come from machines that detect explosives
rather then metal. For now, human deminers working with vegetation clearing equipment
and dogs work best.
"There is no simple answer," he said, "and there is no silver bullet."