The Belgian de-mining research group APOPO has eight of the rodents working alongside dogs and metal detectors on a minefield in Mozambique's coastal town of Vilanculos, about 650km northeast of the capital, Maputo.

 

The Gambian giant pouched rats are helping to clear a stretch of fertile land that has lain fallow since a savage civil war ended in 1992.

 

Landmines are an insidious legacy of a conflict that maim and kill Mozambicans to this day, including children who were born long after the guns were silenced.

 

"The biggest problem in landmines is that from the moment there is a mine somewhere, a very large area becomes suspect and has to be cleared before people can go back to farming there," said Frank Weetjens, APOPO's representative in Mozambique.


Gambian giant pouched rat

"The biggest problem in landmines is that from the moment there is a mine somewhere, a very large area becomes suspect and has to be cleared before people can go back to farming there"

Frank Weetjens,
APOPO representative

Enter the Gambian giant pouched rat, the latest weapon in the war to remove more than 100 million landmines scattered in about 60 countries that kill or injure an estimated 50 people daily.

 

Growing to a maximum weight of 2.8kg, it can scamper around a minefield without the risk of detonating anti-personnel gadgets that can be triggered by its heavier canine colleague.


The pouched rat has a dog's nose but not its bulk.
 

The rats are attached to little red harnesses and guided down the length of a 100-square-metre field by their trainer. When the rat hits on a suspected mine, it stops, sniffs and starts to scratch.

"It took a while for me to accept the idea at first, and even among the villagers near the minefield there is some scepticism about what the rats can do," said Mozambican Samo Manhica, who works as an observer on the APOPO programme in Vilanculos.


Limitations

Some villagers are sceptical
about what the rats can do

After the Second World War, dogs emerged as the most reliable and efficient detection method, able to sniff out mines buried 15 to 20cm below ground, which a metal detector will miss.

Metal detectors are slow and tedious because they pick up every single metal fragment in a suspected minefield.

Of the 26,000 pieces of metal detected so far on the minefield in Vilanculos, only 74 turned out to be landmines.
"Every tool has its own limitations. Machines, dogs, men have limitations, and so do the rats."

"What is important is that we have a package that can speed up the process, and we can reduce costs and increase productivity."