Today In Fact, 4 April

Today is the international day for landmine awareness and assistance. So I thought I would tell you about Bart Weetjens, the rat man.

Some years back I met Bart at an Ashoka induction event. A short Belgian with a quiet unassuming manner, Bart has pioneered a new technology in the detection of landmines. He shared with us that on his ninth birthday, he got a hamster for a present. This set-off a life-long fascination with rodents. He spent a substantial part of his early teenage life raising hamsters, mice, and rats, and distributing them to pet shops for sale. He also developed a liking for weaponry, preferring toy guns and other war machinery for presents. At the age of 14 Bart joined Cadet School to learn military skills, but after only one year he left, the experience engendered a life-long revulsion for war, the military and its effects.

Over the last half century we have seen numerous wars break out in Africa, Asia, Europe, Central and South America, and the Middle East. The combatants in these wars have planted millions of landmines and long after the end of a war, these landmines remain in the ground waiting to claim thousands of lives. According to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines approximately 55 million landmines and unexploded ordinance in over 84 countries cause between 10,000 and 20,000 casualties each year.

To reduce the risk of death and increase efficiency, manual demining has been combined with mine-detection dogs. Dogs have been trained to sniff the presence of explosives. They work alongside human deminers at the frontline. In fact, mine detection dogs scan a wider area and detect explosives faster than any other known method. However, trained dogs—most of them imported from Europe or America—are very expensive. A well-trained mine detection dog costs up to US$40,000. Imported dogs are prone to tropical diseases, and their weight can easily set off a landmine.

Bart knew all about rats and was certain that they would make better mine detectors than dogs. Starting in an old rented laboratory in Belgium in 1995, Bart trained rats to detect explosives in minute amounts. Bart soon relocated his laboratory to Tanzania in East Africa. Tanzania provided the right environment for Bart to concentrate on developing and spreading the technology. He set up a world-class training facility in Morogoro 190 kilometers west of Dar-es-Salam, Tanzania’s main urban centre.

Bart has worked out a partnership with the Tanzania People’s Defense Force to supply him with deactivated landmines for the training program. Sokoine University of Agriculture provided him with the space to build his training facility and over 24 hectares of land to use as a training minefield and support through its rodent research centre. All together, Bart’s teams have developed the most varied landmine detection testing facility in the world.

Bart’s choice of rat; the African Giant Pouched Rat, is based on its advantages over other species. This rat species is endemic to sub-Saharan Africa. Its vast spread in the region and its relatively longer lifespan (it lives up to eight years in captivity, while other species live for a maximum of three years) guarantees a sustainable supply of rats for the demining programme. Their light weight enables them to navigate through minefields without setting off active landmines.

The rats are trained to differentiate between the smell of explosives and other smells by rewarding them every time the correct sample is identified. Demining work is conducted in teams of human trainers, their rats, and scientists. The rats who pass the training become official HeroRATS, which is the basis of a creative marketing and fundraising campaign for the project. Bart’s HeroRATS have been active in Tanzania, Mozambique, Angola and Thailand. Eleven more countries have contracted his organisation to de-mine areas.

– Douglas Racionzer (more of Doug’s sideways glances at history can be found at http://serendipiday.blogspot.com/)