Forget About Pizza Rat, These Rodents are Saving Lives With Their Sense of Smell
While New York City and the internet are busy making memes about pizza rat, spaghetti rat, or rats battling pigeons, Cambodia is putting their rats to work. The country still has an estimated 4 million landmines, grenades, or other undetonated explosives in the ground from decade-old conflicts and rats are the newest weapon in sniffing them out.
These aren’t your average city rats either, but African giant pouched rats, also known as Gambian pouched rats which have terrible eyesight, but have an excellent sense of smell when it comes to tracking TNT below the earth.
The rat isn’t anymore popular in Cambodia than it is in the United States, but what makes the rats so valuable is that they’re easy to train, lightweight so there’s no chance of them setting off a mine like a dog or machine, and can clear a field in an incredibly fast amount of time. While it might take a machine from two to three days to clear a 200-square-meter field, a rat can get the job done in under an hour. And unlike dogs who will only work with their trainer, the rats don’t have a bond with their handlers and will work with any human.
The rats were trained to develop their talent for sniffing out TNT by Belgian nonprofit called Apopo, that has also trained the rodents to sniff out tuberculosis. The group’s breeding program in Tanzania began sending the rats to post-conflict countries like Mozambique and Angola, and started working with the Cambodian Mine Action Center in April. Since then, the 15 rats that were sent to Cambodia have been working from dawn until midday and proven to be an invaluable asset.
Rats like Victoria amble through the grass, attached to a line held by their handler until they find something.
“She’s very good today, very fresh after the rain last night,” says her supervisor Hulsok Heng.”As Victoria gets close, maybe a foot-and-a-half away, she stops, sticks her nose up high in the air and seems to lock on to something. She takes another half-step, then scratches the ground. It’s the signal that she’s found the mine.”
When the rats find a mine, they get a banana. No mine, no banana. Through repetition the rats learn to smell for only TNT and not be fooled by false alarms like a car battery, oil filter, or an old can of tuna fish.
Being that the rats cost around $6,500, they’re very well cared for and spend their time when not hunting mines in air conditioned cages or playing. When the rats reach old age or are no longer able to track with efficiency, they’re either humanely euthanized or pass away quietly in their cages.
After Angola’s civil war, hundreds of land mines were left over and park rangers began to notice something – elephants began to steer clear of mine-laden fields and even trumpet a warning to other elephants. Sean Hensman, a South African researcher with the group Adventures with Elephants, took part in a study to determine just how efficient these bomb-sniffing giants were and was amazed with the results.
“We tested one elephant a year after we had done the initial research, and he still passed the whole test with flying colors.”
While authorities have no intention of putting their elephant population in jeopardy to hunt land mines, their expert smell could possibly be tool in hunting down another killer – cancer.
“They’re using dogs to detect cancer, they’re using dogs to detect diseases,” said Hensman, “and if we could use an elephant do the same, then hopefully we can save a lot of people.”