It takes a true visionary to see a Buddhist monk deploying a pack of giant rats as the solution to the devastating danger posed by landmines.
Every few hours, another person is killed or maimed by a landmine. Even in areas removed from active conflict, landmines are more than just distressing reminders of former bloodshed -- they're hidden hazards that terrorize populations and freeze development.
Identifying, unearthing and disarming these explosives is dangerous and daunting. Despite record clearances, more countries deployed anti-personnel mines last year than in any year since 2004.
But one social innovator has risen to the challenge -- with the help of a few hundred friends. The innovator is the industrial engineer, Buddhist monk and Ashoka Fellow Bart Weetjens.
His hundreds of friends are sub-Saharan Africa's giant pouched rats. About three feet long and armed with a powerful sense of smell, these rats might just be humanity's best hope for moving forward with confidence.
"Our rats save human lives, and therefore we call them HeroRATS," said Weetjens, the founder of APOPO, a Dutch social enterprise that researches, develops, and disseminates detection rats technology for humanitarian purposes. Headquartered in the southern highlands of Tanzania, at the Sokoine University of Agriculture (SUA) campus in Morogoro, Weetjens and APOPO train rats through classical conditioning -- think Pavlov and his dogs -- to detect threats in countries with long landmine legacies.
In APOPO's Mine Action Program, baby rats are removed from their litters as soon as their eyes open (usually four weeks after birth) and dropped into a rigorous training and socialization program. Rats are trained to detect the scent of TNT and indicate its presence to handlers in a lab setting before honing their skills in field tests.
Before taking their talents to active minefields, they must first meet International Mine Action Standards (IMAS) by passing an external accreditation exam supervised by the National Mine Action authority. The rats are never in any real danger; too light to trigger an explosion, they roam freely over charged land.
How do APOPO's HeroRATs measure up to traditional minesweeping techniques? It's no contest. Two HeroRATs, with human handlers in tow, can cover 300 square meters of land in a single hour. It would take a pair of deminers equipped with metal detectors a full two days to cover the same area.
And land release isn't just faster with HeroRATs, it's also less expensive -- about 50 cents cheaper per square mile than the accepted industry standard. As the lone demining organization in Mozambique, HeroRATs have played a major role in clearing more than two million square meters of suspected minefields in the Gaza province, a rural area previously dotted with landmines.
Last year alone, 36 HeroRATs and 14 locally-trained handlers cleared nearly 800,000 square meters of land, safely destroying 861 landmines, 373 items of unexploded ordnance (UXO), 6,216 small arms and ammunitions (SAA), and one cluster bomb RBK-250-275. By the end of this year, APOPO hopes to clear an additional two million square meters of land.
In 2010, the Thailand Mine Action Centre (TMAC) asked APOPO to conduct land release surveys along its Cambodian border, in partnership with the Thai NGO Peace Road Organization (PRO). Ten weeks of sweeps uncovered 165 anti-personnel mines and 17 anti-tank mines. APOPO will maintain a presence in Thailand to assist the country's compliance with the 2018 AP Mine Ban Convention (APMBC) deadline.
Rodents have always been more than vermin for Weetjens. As a boy, he raised and cared for rats, mice, hamsters, gerbils, and squirrels, and lovingly describes them today as "very nice, sociable, intelligent animals." Other stakeholders needed convincing -- some people, including at least one current employee, have even mistaken APOPO for a pest control service.
"In the beginning it was really tough," Weetjens recalled. "Everywhere I went to apply for funding, we were just laughed at. Institutions were actually very reluctant toward such an approach. The reason (for my perseverance) why was clear, obvious. I dreamt of a better world; as long as these mines are there, people just can't build a normal life."
But Weetjens' faith in rats has paid off in more ways than bomb sniffing: HeroRATS' impressive olfactory sense can save lives in other ways.
In Tanzania, rats are also used in second-line health screenings, detecting tuberculosis-positive patients who were initially missed by microscopy tests by recognizing the pathogenic bacteria in human sputum samples. To date, HeroRATs have increased detection rates by about 43 percent, positively identified more than 2,200 tuberculosis patients through second-line screening, while preventing the contraction of nearly 23,000 new cases by reducing the likelihood of person-to-person transmission.
There may be even more applications for these misunderstood rodents; but Weetjens says it will take more than dollars. While funding for landmine action and victim assistance reached an all-time high of $637 million in 2010, only a fraction of that is dedicated to supporting survivors.
And it will still take hundreds of years for global land release. Even more reason to believe in Weetjen's locally-resourced and environmentally sustainable rat pack.
Follow John Converse Townsend on Twitter: www.twitter.com/JohnCTownsend