Why Mozambique’s rats are man’s best friend

Giant rodents are paving the way for community development in war-torn country

Working with Belgian NGO Apopo a team of 12 African giant pouched rats have been trained to sniff out the TNT of landmines, helping to leave Mozambique on the verge of being landmine free. Video: Mary Boland

 

Mourinho is late for work. A torrential downpour, typical at this time of year in western Mozambique’s mountainous Manica province, has set him back at least half an hour on this Monday morning in March. Rain plays havoc with Mourinho’s ability to do his highly specialised job.

When at last it eases at 6.30am, he and 11 similarly delayed co-workers fidget impatiently while travelling by jeep with their supervisors through the village of Dombe in Sussundenga district to the field where their daily assignment begins.

Within minutes, Mourinho is scampering across the landscape, straining excitedly out of his tiny harness, sniffing and scratching the dusty earth, his nose puckering, big ears twitching, and his long black whiskers rippling while two supervisors observe and take notes of his behaviour.

A quick sniff is not so significant; a prolonged bout of scratching in the soil – especially if one of his team-mates later behaves the same way in the same spot – usually indicates that explosives lie beneath.

Mourinho is one of 12 African giant pouched rats tasked with sniffing out the TNT of landmines in this incongruously idyllic setting on the edge of Chimanimani National Reserve, a vast forested area on the Zimbabwean border that boasts spectacular waterfalls and the imposing Monte Binga, Mozambique’s highest peak.

For decades, this zone was a crucial battleground in two vicious and devastating wars during which landmines were sown in place of food, and where locals are still suffering the effects 23 years after hostilities ended. It was here last November, on a sleepy plain bordered by cornfields, that 18-year-old newlywed Verginia Mateus lost a leg after stepping on a landmine while making bricks to build a house.

“This is why we’re here. After the accident we came to check and clear the area so that the people can get back to farming and other normal activities, and have confidence that they are safe,” explains Januario Bape, a team leader with Belgian NGO Apopo, which breeds and trains the rats – they’re about the size of a small domestic cat – in neighbouring Tanzania.

After nine months’ intensive drilling at a rat boot-camp in Morogoro, followed by an accreditation test, young “graduate” rodents are despatched for work across the border. Since 2008, Apopo’s mine-detection rats, along with their human “handlers” and manual demining teams, have helped reclaim more than 11 million sq m (1,100 hectares) of land for Mozambican communities, and destroyed more than 13,200 landmines and 1,100 bombs. The mines the rats uncover are later checked and safely disposed of by their human colleagues.

The widespread use of landmines during some 25 years of conflict – the 1964-1974 war of independence between Portugal’s colonial forces and the Marxist Front for the Liberation of Mozambique (Frelimo), and the 1977-1992 civil war between Frelimo government forces and Renamo fighters – meant generations of Mozambicans who fled or were forced from their homes during wartime were later deprived of the freedom to return and rebuild their lives.

More than a million people died from fighting and famine during the civil war. The mine-strewn landscape that resulted – Mozambique was among the world’s most mine-contaminated countries – continued to claim lives and maim civilians, and made development impossible.

“It’s good that they’re doing this work, even though it’s too late for my wife,” says farmer Samuel Fernando Sitoe (27), husband of landmine casualty Verginia, who is convalescing with family in a neighbouring district. “It’s good for farmers to be able to work safely on the land. No one had any idea there were mines there – we had been through that area so many times without a problem.”

This is one of Apopo’s last projects in Mozambique. A major clearance effort launched in 1993 by the United Nations and international NGOs is finally coming to an end, and the authorities are preparing to declare the country landmine-free.

Apopo’s rats – the Cricetomys gambianus, plentiful in Africa and in most countries more likely to be barbecued than put to work – are credited with playing a starring role in Mozambique’s transformation. Weighing in at around 1.2kg and with a razor-sharp sense of smell, they identify TNT and landmines far more quickly than humans equipped with metal detectors, and are light enough not to set them off. On this project, explains team leader Alson Majongota, it took the rats’ team nine days to clear 7,400 sq m of land; the (all-human) manual demining team, working in parallel, needed 15 days to clear just 5,440 sq m.

The idea of using rats for demining came to Apopo founder Bart Weetjens 20 years ago when he read about gerbils being trained to identify the scent of explosives. The Cricetomys’s exceptional olfactory skills, intelligence, low weight and wide availability convinced Weetjens the rodents could make a major contribution to development efforts.

Living happily on a diet of avocados, bananas, tomatoes, peanuts and apples, the rats, who live for seven to eight years, are also far cheaper to train and maintain. It costs about €6,000 to train a mine-detection rat compared to the €23,200 ($25,000) the US-based Marshall Legacy Institute invests in training a dog to do the same job.

“Rats are easier to work with than dogs,” explains Zacarias Chambe, Apopo operations officer. “They don’t get attached to their owner or handler, so they can be transferred easily from one handler to another. But a dog – a dog bonds with its handler, and can’t be so easily handed over to someone else to work with.”

The rats are taught to associate the smell of TNT with a clicking sound and a food reward, says Chambe. One of the handlers, Victor Boquico, demonstrates the technique with “Mocadas 53” (the rats are named by their trainers in Tanzania): as soon as Mocadas scratches the ground to indicate he has sniffed TNT and then hears his handler pressing a clicker, he dashes over to Victor, stands on his hind legs and grabs the proffered half-banana in his tiny paws, his cheeks puffing as he stuffs the fruit with cartoon-like speed between long, tapping teeth.

“It makes me feel proud that, because of this work, people can move freely and live their lives,” says Sartina Chivambo from the southern province of Gaza, one of some 25 women deminers working for Apopo in Mozambique. “All of these jobs were done before by men,” she says, raising the protective shield of her helmet as she finishes up for the day. “This really shows that women can do anything that men do.”

Her colleague, Felicidade Matsinhe, a young widow also from Gaza and mother of a nine-year-old girl, says she hopes to travel abroad to do similar work when Apopo winds down in Mozambique.

The NGO’s rats have a head start on her: they’re already detecting mines in Angola, and there are plans to send them soon to Cambodia, says Apopo Mozambique programme manager Ashley S Fitzpatrick.

With the workday over, Mourinho and his rodent colleagues twirl contentedly like kittens in their cages. “After all these years, we are still dealing with the war,” says Chambe. “You see the madness of war. And you see the hope.”

Apopo.org

@HeroRATs

Adopt a HeroRat: Apopo.org/en/support

This article was supported by a grant from the Simon Cumbers Media Fund

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