This is how Bart Weetjens taught rats to sniff out landmines

30 Jan 2018

Bart Weetjens of APOPO on stage at Inspirefest 2017. Image: Conor McCabe

With his humanitarian organisation APOPO, Bart Weetjens trains rats to find landmines. He explained how in his address to the crowd at Inspirefest 2017.

When the CEO of humanitarian organisation APOPO, Bart Weetjens, was a teenager, he loved pet rats. He bred them and sold them to pet shops.

Later, as a product designer, he started travelling around Africa. He was fascinated by the culture but also baffled and saddened by the local community’s dependency on “expensive, imported goods” to tackle the pervasive scourge of landmines.

Future Human

Landmines drive subsistence farmers out of their homes, unable to farm their land due to the potential danger. They often end up in refugee camps, creating a cycle of reliance on aid to provide food and shelter.

This system offers limited education, limited public health services and little potential for a way out.

“Landmines form a structural barrier to any development and still, in over 50 countries, there is a landmine problem,” Weetjens said.

This inspired Weetjens to found APOPO, he told the riveted crowd at Inspirefest 2017.

He showed a video of a small, determined rat on a lead scuttling across the grass in an open field. He’s looking for a landmine, Weetjens explained.

Luckily, the video doesn’t come to a grim end; instead, the rat is able to scratch the ground where it has discovered a landmine, which will be extracted and destroyed. This creates more land that can be of use to farmers and the communities they live in.

From a very early age, the rats (Weetjens calls them HeroRats) are socialised, and then taught by the rat trainers at APOPO to associate the smell of explosives with a ‘food reinforcer’ (banana mashed with peanuts) using traditional Pavlovian conditioning. “They’re literally working for peanuts,” Weetjens joked.

Spurred on by the lure of banana, the rats will diligently seek out the smell they have come to associate with reward.

The tests to find the correct smell incrementally increase in difficulty until the rats are ready to go out into the world, lead on a harness and find landmines.

While a human with a metal detector can search 50 sq m of land a day for mines, a rat can cover 200 sq m in 20 minutes. The use of rats increases productivity while driving down costs. To date, the rats of APOPO have discovered more than 100,000 mines.

This translates into 20m sq m of land released to more than 1m subsistence farmers in Mozambique and other countries.

These rats are multitalented, as Weetjens has also trained them to detect tuberculosis (TB), which has resulted in diagnoses being made in patients who appeared TB-free on scans. In countries such as Tanzania, where the HeroRats are being deployed, the rate of detection of TB via scan is less than 50pc, demonstrating how vital Weetjens’ work is.

The organisation is kept afloat with donations. It has devised an interesting – and, frankly, delightful – way to generate funds in the form of its Adopt a HeroRat scheme.

Inspirefest is Silicon Republic’s international event connecting sci-tech professionals passionate about the future of STEM. Early Bird Tickets for Inspirefest 2018 are on sale now!

Eva Short was a journalist at Silicon Republic