Today is Earth Day, an appropriate moment to remember Africa’s HeroRats. On April 19, the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof called attention to these creatures and their ability to sniff-out land mines and unexploded ordnance (UXO) as well as their ability to screen sputum samples for tuberculosis. To date these animals have detected over 48,000 land mines and UXO’s, and screened over 290,000 samples for tuberculosis.
APOPO, a Belgian non-governmental organization (NGO) with an international staff, trains these HeroRats in Tanzania. Originally starting with mine and UXO detection APOPO has more recently begun using these HeroRats to detect tuberculosis. According to APOPO’s web site, it deploys mine detecting rats in Mozambique, Thailand, Cambodia, and Angola. They have also worked to clear UXO’s in Laos and Vietnam. For tuberculosis screening, APOPO deploys the rats in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Maputo, Mozambique.
The rats are able to clear mine fields and screen sputum for tuberculosis faster and more efficiently than other methods. For example, while a human can screen twenty-five samples of sputum for tuberculosis in a day, HeroRats are able to screen one hundred samples in twenty minutes. In clinics using HeroRats the number of patients identified with tuberculosis has risen by 48 percent.
Along with being efficient, HeroRats are an inexpensive answer to the problems they seek to solve. APOPO estimates that in order to fully train one rat the cost is approximately $6,400, far cheaper than the alternatives. A theme of Kristoff’s column is that HeroRats are an example of innovative non-profit approaches.
HeroRats are Gambian pouched rats. They can be up to three feet long and weigh perhaps forty ounces, too light to set off a mine. Their sense of smell is very strong, compensating for weak eyes. Their life span is about eight years, and they are retired after six. They eat fruits and nuts. Kristof reports that they become close to their handlers. Despite their name, they are rats, not marsupials.
HeroRats are an unabashed good-news story. A NGO has identified how a creature can be used to tackle two different horrors, unexploded munitions and tuberculosis.
Kristoff writes that his children “gave” him a HeroRat as a Father’s Day present a few years ago. The cost to adopt a rat is $84 per year, most of which goes toward the year-long training that APOPO provides the rats. If you are interested in adopting your own HeroRat, you can visit apopo.org.