Thursday, April 23, 2015

Hero Rats

The bad news out of South Africa this week is the outbreak of xenophobic violence in some parts of the country.  Based on the age-old principle that if something is going badly for you it must be someone else’s fault, foreigners – almost exclusively black people from elsewhere in Africa – must be the cause of the slowing economy and lack of jobs.  In the words of Pete Seeger’s song, when will they ever learn?

Angola minefield. Looks harmless?
But just for a change I want to report on a good news story from Africa. Land mines. Well, the land mines themselves are not a good news story, quite the opposite.  When Portugal decided more or less overnight to pull out of its African colonies of Angola and Mozambique, it left a power vacuum that soon became a battleground for control between competing “liberation” movements, often with the backing of outside powers playing their own dirty games.  Among other things, this led to minefields of horrendous proportions, particularly in Angola.  Although the war there ended in 2002, most of the mines remain and they remain active.  Often they surround towns that are expanding and need more land for crop growing.  The results are inevitable and often horrific.

High tech mine detector
Clearing the mines is a painstaking and dangerous business. It involves using metal detectors to clear paths and then to work outwards from safe ground.  Multiple false alarms bring the process to a halt until the cause can be definitely identified.  Various more remote technologies have been tried, including the remote detection of the chemical signatures of the decomposition products of the explosives.  The success rate is quite good, but would you be willing to accept “quite good” if you were walking in the area?  And these technologies are not cheap.

Dogs have been tried in the past, but there are problems, not the least of which is that they can set off the mines.  

Enter the hero of our story, the Gambian Pouched Rat.

It has always seemed to me that the rat has had a very bad rap.  They are smart, successful in a wide variety of environments, and tend to clean up after us.  Of course, they can transmit diseases, but no one’s perfect.  And they are said to make excellent and affectionate pets.

A hero rat on the job
But these are working rats.  They have an extremely sensitive sense of smell, and can be trained to pick up the scents arising from buried land mines without difficulty.  Best of all, they are too light to set off the mines, and they run on guide wires that ensure that their handlers can follow them safely and investigate their discoveries.  They have a much lower false alarm rate than metal detectors; the process of clearing an area can proceed more quickly and efficiently.  Because they are doing such a great job, they have become known as the Hero Rats.  You can see them in action in a recent New York Times video HERE.  And if you want to know more about them, and even maybe to “adopt” one (the rats accept Visa and Mastercard), take a look at the Apopo site HERE.

Did I mention their great whiskers?
It’s a good news story from Africa – rats to the rescue!  Now if we could persuade rats to generate electricity, we might be in with a real chance!

As one Nose to another...

Michael – Thursday.


  1. If James Cagney was still alive, he'd have to change his famous movie quote from "You dirty yellow-bellied rat!" to "You wonderful heroic rats!" Great story, Michael!

  2. Fabulous Michael. I love rats- they are just squirrels with bad PR. My new book has a lot of rats in it, not Rattus Rattus but Rattus Norwegicus living in the underground rivers of Glasgow.
    I think rats and ferrets were often used in construction to run fine wires down pipes so that larger cables could then be attached and pulled through. As you say, they are bright and affectionate pets. I don't know if it is true but while doing some research on replacing animals in drug testing, I read that a rat's liver is so efficient, that if a human liver was as good, we could drink 35 bottles of whisky and still be sober.
    Food (or drink ) for thought....

  3. I guess this is truly a case of Ex Africa semper aliquid novi.

  4. M, I adopted a rat. I named him Victor, because I want our side to win on this one. AND because iv is the name of a boss I once had who rated me as "average." I have been insulted in many other ways, and I suppose rightly so, but that was an epithet I could not bear. I have always thought of Victor S. as a rat. Now I know, that is insult to rats!

  5. Great to have so much Rat support here! We actually have a character called Rat in our new book, mainly because of the informer idiom. I think we may need to reconsider that!

  6. Once more rats to the rescue. Now if only they could be trained to detect political non-scents.

  7. I'm sure they could, Jeff. Even humans can, we've just learnt to accept it...