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How African giant pouched rats are helping fight tuberculosis and detect landmines

Photo by Karl Mancini

Alongside many better-known animals, Africa is also home to the giant pouched rat (Cricetomys Gambianus), a creature that possesses an extraordinary sense of smell. Belgian NGO Apopo is harnessing the huge potential of this skill in two very different fields: the detection of landmines and the identification of tuberculosis. The training of the so-called “HeroRATs” is conducted in collaboration with the Tanzanian armed forces in the heart of the country, in Morogoro, where the “click-reward” method is used to teach the animals to scratch on top of the 

landmines they detect. In difference to conventional metal detectors, the rodents are fast and efficient. In terms of training, the best specimens, which can reach a weight of up to one and a half kilos, are sent to conflict zones or countries that are still mined, such as Mozambique and Cambodia. The problem of landmines, in fact, is a serious one that affects around 60 countries around the world and every year causes thousands of injuries and fatalities.

Every year, worldwide there are around 1.4 million deaths from tuberculosis, the world’s most lethal infectious illness. The HeroRATs are capable of “sniffing it out” through samples of mucus or catarrh taken from suspected positive cases, thereby speeding up rates of clinical detection by 40% and refining a method that in much of the world is still slow and inaccurate.


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