I read about this on the internet today then found that the Guardian had reported on it – and included an astonishing and slightly disturbing video – click here to see it. The article is from Apopo’s own website.
To speed up the process of demining, mine detection rats are used to directly indicate the positions of buried landmines. On average, it takes a rat less than half an hour to search a 100m2 box.
The rat is guided by a search string, which is connected between its two trainers. The rat moves systematically up and down the search string, processing lane by lane through the suspected box. Both trainers take position at opposite sides of the box in the safe lane, fixing the search string to the lower leg. When a rat reaches the end of the box, the operators make a lateral step, and the rat moves into the next lane. A box or lane system provides the safe access lanes for the trainers. APOPO is using 5 by 20 meter boxes, which means that the rat has to search 40 lanes of half a meter to clear one box.
The rat indicates the position of a landmine by scratching the surface at the spot. Being lightweight, they do not set off the explosive devices. In a training situation, the trainer clicks upon a correct indication by the rat and the animal will moves to the trainer to get its reward. A second person, the observer, takes notes on the behavior and performance of the rat while working.
Typically, one to three rats are used consecutively to search an area. The number of rats to be used depends on the operational scenario and the combination with other search techniques. Quality control behind other detectors or a confirmation search behind a mechanical clearance will require less animals compared to primary detection.
After the rat has been fully trained on the training fields in Tanzania, a series of blind tests is carried out to assess its performance. If the animal meets the desired requirements, it will be selected for de-mining operations. As with dogs, the rats are re-calibrated on the specific mines found in the demining operations, before being deployed.