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The bomb sniffing rats of Africa

Belgian NGO called APOPO had developed a way to train African pouched rats (named for the storage pouch in their cheeks) to sniff out bombs quickly and safely.


Throughout the world, places that have been involved in war and/or civil conflict often have large minefields that still need clearing.

In 2013, it was estimated that there was a global average of around nine mine-related deaths every day. The situation is especially dire in Africa. Typically, clearing a minefield involves men in body armor walking in very precise lines with metal detectors. Anything (from a rusty nail to an old ammo cartridge) that sets the detectors off must be investigated before moving on. A new method of bomb detection using rats, however, is flipping this process on its head.

They used this rat because it has an incredibly fine-tuned sense of smell and a long lifespan (8-9 years) to yield returns on the nine months of training they undergo. They’re called Hero Rats, and not one has died in the line of duty since the program started in 1997. The average mine requires 5 kg (roughly 11 pounds) of weight to trigger an explosion, but even the largest of these rats are only around 1.5 kg (3.3 pounds).

Since they’re trained to sniff out explosives exclusively, they aren’t distracted by other metal objects the way electronic minesweepers are.

They can effectively search 200 square meters of land in less than 20 minutes. A team of humans would need around 25 hours to do the same job. Since they are exposed to the African Sun, the Rats are applied with sunscreen to keep them Skin Cancer free. If a rat does get Cancer, it receives full medical treatment.

The rats are “paid” in avocados, peanuts, bananas and other yummy treats. After about 4-5 years on the job (or whenever they lose interest in working), they’re allowed to retire.

Retirement consists of eating all the tasty fruit their little hearts desire.