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APOPO – training rats to save lives

By William Deed

Another inspiring project that IR Online alumnus Tesfazghi Tewelde is involved in, is APOPO – a social enterprise that researches, develops and disseminates detection rat technology for humanitarian purposes. Our current focus is to improve Tuberculosis detection in developing countries and to establish a cost and time effective solution to landmine clearance in post-conflict areas. We are registered in Belgium with our Operational Headquarters in Tanzania, and we currently employ over 200 local staff in Tanzania, Mozambique, and Thailand with over 200 rats in various stages of breeding, detection training, research, or operations.

Bart Weetjens, APOPO’s Founder, kept rats when he was a child. Years later, as a product engineer, he learned of the landmine problem and that the detection of these devices was difficult, dangerous, costly, and time consuming. In his research he came across an article published in the '70s on gerbils and their ability to detect explosives in a laboratory. He thought back to his childhood and his rats’ terrific sense of smell and trainability. It was quite logical that rats could provide a cheaper, more efficient, and locally available means to detect landmines.

It takes nine months to fully train a Detection Rat. These intelligent rats are socialised from a young age, and then taught to detect a particular scent through operant conditioning, where click training is used with an immediate food reward. Currently, APOPO trains Detection Rats to work in one of three disciplines: landmine detection, tuberculosis screening, or remote scent tracing.

For more information visit www.apopo.org.