Wednesday, October 6, 2010


Fran, my blog coach, emailed me an article: "Giant Rats Put Their Noses to Work in Africa."

"Ugg" I clicked another email. "Everyone's worried about bedbugs -- why write about rats in Mozambique? Where's Tanzania?"

Wow! I read it just now. It's a MUST DO! I can't tell this story much better than the CNN World writer; Elliot C. McLaughlin: "Niko Mushi hated rats, as did most people in his village near Tanzania's Mt. Kilimanjaro -- until he learned the critters had a nose for land mines.

"Mushi, 32, has been working with Giant African Pouched Rats for almost seven years. He now enjoys their company -- ' They're just like my friend,' he says -- but he concedes he was skeptical when the man who conceived the idea for HeroRats first told him they could sniff out live ordnance.

"'I thought maybe he was making some jokes,' Mushi said. 'I was amazed that rats could do such a thing.'

"Before he started working with rats, Mushi had a comfortable job teaching the Kiswahili language at a Lutheran seminary. He was terrified when he first took one of his long-tailed protégés into a Mozambican minefield."

(I looked up the size -- 28 inches from nose to tail-tip with an average weight of 3-1/2 to 4 pounds. The "pouch" is their jaws that swell and hold food till they are ready to eat. Yikes! The rat looks like its twice the size of the hand holding out the banana!)

McLaughlin writes: "Mushi had heard stories of accidents involving the mines, mostly leftovers from Mozambique's civil war, which ended in 1992. He was not emboldened by the skeletons of soldiers and others who'd taken unfortunate steps before him. But his rat found 16 land mines that day.

"'We are not a good friend to these creatures,' Mushi said of his countrymen, 'But after people see this work that we are doing, they change this position.'"

McLaughlin's story doesn't end there. Mushi's rat can find tuberculosis, too! Africa, because of its prevalence of HIV, has more deadly tuberculosis than any other continent.

When the founder of APOPO ( Dutch acronym meaning Anti-Personnel Land Mines Detection Product), Bart Weetjens, saw a 2002 World Health Organization report predicting TB deaths would quadruple to 8 million by 2015. He started thinking. "The ancient Chinese diagnose the disease by the smell of a person's saliva that has the smell of tar ..."

Weetjens and his wife trained APOPO's rats to identify the smell of TB in human sputum.

In 2008 and 2009, HeroRats in Tanzania detected 900 cases of TB. APOPO estimates the rats prevented 13,575 transmissions.

Weetjens, a Buddhist monk, heads the organization and trains HeroRats. He said Mushi's initial repulsion is common. "Prejudice against rats is deep in our psyche."

Here's some statistics from McLaughlin's article: Land mines and related devices were responsible for 73,576 casualties worldwide from 1999 to 2009, with almost a fifth of them in 24 African countries.

"It takes limited skill and only six to eight months to train a rat -- or a year for the "slow" rats, because some rats are smarter than others," said trainer Mushi, who was trained by Weetjens.

Mushi now oversees 14 rats. The cost to train a rat is 6,000 euros ($7,700), roughly a third of what it costs to train a dog. Training begins when the rats are 4 weeks old. They're taught to associate a clicking noise with a tasty banana or peanuts.

The treats are used to teach them how to signal when they find a mine and how to detect the scent of TNT in tea balls. Before they're shipped to Mozambique, they have several trial runs in APOPO's training minefields, some of which contain tea balls, others live mines.

It hasn't been easy convincing the international community that mine-sniffing rats are viable, but donors are coming around. A partners list once consisting solely of Antwerp University and the Belgian government, now includes about 30 groups, including the U.N. Development Program, World Bank Development Marketplace, and the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship.
Gee ... want to do something to help folks in Africa? Want to get yourself a pet?

Here's very down-to-earth link -- it says they're often destructive but they can be cuddly: Giant African Pouched Rats as Pets.
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