“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” The quote is attributed to Leonardo da Vinci but also applies to the Zen Buddhist philosophy that inspired Antwerp product developer Bart Weetjens to found the non-profit Apopo (Anti-Personnel Landmines Detection Product Development).
Instead of developing high-tech robots for landmine detection, Apopo trains African giant pouched rats to sniff out the deadly weapons hidden in African and Southeast Asian fields. The intelligent rodents diagnose tuberculosis in sputum samples as well, faster than a team of laboratory technicians. Soon, rats equipped with cameras could save people buried under rubble after disasters.
Rats may be considered vermin by many, but Weetjens knew from childhood, when he kept them as pets, that they had a very special social character. His fascination for Africa evolved later, through contacts with African students staying at his home, where social responsibility and solidarity was high up on the agenda.
“After graduating as an industrial designer, I couldn’t settle down in that sector, where making profit is the main goal,” he tells me. He quit his job in the industry and began painting.
His social commitment, combined with his Buddhist conviction of compassion, found new inspiration when Princess Diana brought the problem of landmines to the public’s attention in the mid-1990s. Millions of landmines and explosive remnants, buried during military conflicts, cause death and mutilations in 66 countries around the world, often making economic growth and development in those areas impossible.
Weetjens experienced a “eureka” moment at a conference on landmines. “A Dutch colleague showed me an article on the ability of rats to smell explosives,” he explains. “While the conference mainly revolved around expensive technology such as robots and sensors, I realised rats made a cheaper detection technique possible in developing countries. They can smell the presence of mines.”
His project did not meet immediate approval. “I was laughed at often,” he admits. “I guess the idea was just too simple to be taken serious by many investors and donors. Thankfully, I received the support of the University of Antwerp and the Belgian government, where people with experience in Africa believed in the undertaking.”
Weetjens also found a partner in a former fellow student, Christophe Cox, who became the CEO of Apopo in 1998 after the non-profit received its first research grant from the federal government.
At the University of Antwerp, Weetjens and Cox’s alma mater, biology professor Ron Verhagen helped to get Apopo going by investigating which rats would be most suitable for mine detection. Verhagen, who had 20 years of research experience at the University of Morogoro in Tanzania, suggested the African giant pouched rats.
“They are a widespread indigenous species, fairly easy to train with food rewards and with an average body length of 40 centimetres,” explains Weetjens. “You can work with them comfortably on a leash. Weighing a maximum of 1.5 kilograms, they don’t set off mines when they detect them by scratching at the ground above, since the mines are activated by a pressure of at least five kilograms.”
Two of Apopo’s rats, working with two handlers, can cover 300 square metres of land in one hour. “Two de-miners with metal detectors need two full days to cover the same area,” says Weetjens.
The rats are also cheaper to train and manage than dogs, which are now usually used for de-mining operations. “It costs an average of €6,000 to train one minedetection rat,” says Weetjens. “That’s approximately one-quarter of the cost of a fully trained mine-detection dog.”
But of course, there are a lot more experienced dog trainers than rat trainers. “The animals are complementary,” believes Weetjens. Dogs, for instance, are widely socially accepted, while rats usually have a negative image. “Some African tribes even eat the rats,” says Weetjens. “But our local staff soon … experience how lovable the rats really are. We also give the rats names to make the relationship between handler and animal more personal. And to emphasise the value of our rodents, we call them HeroRats. Soon, rat and handler form a team and our local workers are proud to save lives together with them.”
While Apopo has an administrative branch in Antwerp, the headquarters and training base are in Tanzania. Fifteen years after the start, the organisation has mine action programmes in Mozambique, Angola and Thailand, where they employ more than 200 local staff and have over 300 rats. Apopo is further expanding its activities to Southeast Asia by preparing a mine action programme in Myanmar, to be launched next year.
The base in Tanzania includes a tuberculosis (TB) detection centre, where Apopo offers second-line screening to partner hospitals. Again, the concept is deceptively simple: The rats sniff a series of holes, under which human sputum samples are lined up for evaluation. They can smell TB bacteria and are trained to keep their nose in the hole for a few seconds if it’s present. Then they are rewarded with a treat – mostly bananas and peanuts. Samples pinpointed by at least two rats are confirmed using microscopy.
“Our rats can evaluate 40 sputum samples in 7 minutes, equal to what a skilled lab technician can do in a full day’s work,” says Weetjens. According to Apopo, this faster diagnostic method is essential to curb the spread of TB, which kills 1.7 million people every year. Left untreated, a person with active TB on average infects about 10 other people in the course of a year. Since the beginning of 2012, Apopo has expanded its TB programme into Mozambique, which like Tanzania is a high-risk TB country.
In the future, HeroRats could also serve as CameRats, equipped with small cameras on their back to search for survivors under rubble – where dogs cannot go – after disasters such as earthquakes.
For the moment, Apopo relies on grants and donations, but that may change in the near future. This year, the organisation has carried out experiments to determine whether rats are capable of detecting tobacco, salmonella bacteria and bed bugs. They have already received a request from the Port of Rotterdam to help search for smuggled goods, a project that is in a pilot phase.
To support the mission of Apopo, people can adopt a rat and receive regular updates about its daily life, signed “love and whiskers”.
“We want to create a connection with our rodents, and from there raise public support for our plans so we become more mainstream,” says Weetjens. “I hear that, for example, Bill Gates, who also battles TB with his foundation, is not fond of rats. Hopefully we can change this mentality as we keep on digging.”
According to Apopo, the training of rats starts at four to five weeks, when juveniles are weaned from the mother. After nursing by caretakers, the rats learn to associate a clicking sound with a food reward and have to perform certain tasks to get this reward. The training programme takes eight to 12 months in total. The rats train and work mornings from Monday to Friday and, like most of us, get the weekends off.
HeroRats’ living facilities are spacious, and they are regularly taken outside for play time. African giant pouched rats can live up to eight years and, as a result of careful treatment, the majority of mine-detection rats live to the end of that lifespan. Rats work up to five years in the field. Incredibly, none of Apopo’s rats has ever died during detection work.
“Although we prefer that robots or other technological applications are deployed instead of animals, we understand that this technology is not always affordable for developing countries,” comments Michel Vandenbosch, president of the animal welfare association Gaia. “We haven’t seen Apopo’s facilities with our own eyes, but it looks like the NGO fulfils all conditions to make sure that the rats don’t develop neuroses, as do many captive animals. We hope that this example inspires research facilities to treat laboratory rats, who often live in small cages without recreation, in a similar way.”
Gaia also welcomes efforts to improve the image of rats, “which are still seen by many as carriers of diseases that have to be exterminated,” Vandenbosch says. “These animals are not vermin; they are affectionate creatures with intelligence and skills.”
To present its mission to the general public, Apopo has set up the exhibition Op pad met HeroRat (On the Path with HeroRat) in the castle at Rivierenhof park in Antwerp. Celebrated Flemish photographer Lieve Blancquaert contributed a series of photos, shot during a visit to Tanzania and Mozambique (see photo) with Princess Astrid, the honorary president of Apopo since 2009.
Children can test their skills as HeroRats by entering a rat hallway that leads to a rat cabinet, where they have to detect identical fragrances. On a mine carpet, they can search for mines using magnets. The exhibition also includes equipment from the Belgian army, such as de-mining suits, mine detectors and landmines. Furthermore, the Flemish organisation Klaprozen voor Vrede, or Poppies for Peace, provides an installation of ceramic poppies. By buying one (or more), you support Apopo.
Turnhoutsebaan 232, Antwerp