An important electricity line has just been laid in western Mozambique, crucial to the development of Mozambique’s big new Limpopo National Park.
Thanks to. Rats.
Yes that’s right. Installation had been stalled because of the huge numbers of land mines that remained in the area from the civil war. Land mines are a problem throughout much of troubled Africa, but nowhere as severely as in Mozambique.
An area of about 5000 sq. meters (100m x 50m, roughly the size of three American football fields placed end to end), was known to be full of mines, and there was no other way for the huge electricity grid to go.
The mines were known to be there, because of the skeletal remains found by the pylon diggers in the rectangular area they were to enter. The bones were from years of innocent people irregularly traveling through the remote area.
A pack of rats was let loose, identified the 32 mines in the area which were then dismantled, and the lights are on!
The giant African pouched rat is the work horse. It’s the genius work of a Belgium aid group, Apopo, with the cooperation of several organizations in Tanzania, including the army and Morogoro university where the rats undergo training.
The rat has an especially keen sense of smell. Like white rats, it’s affectionate and not aggressive, more like a bunny than vermin. Apparently it’s also quite intelligent, responding to Pavlovian training as if it were a dog. And, of course, it digs nicely.
What I find especially interesting about Apopo is that its founder and original collaborators were all engineers, those guys who look at a problem through its pieces. Traditional detection mechanisms went for the metal that the exploding powder turned into deadly shrapnel. But land mines are mostly composed of very aromatic powders (gun powder), and it was onto this principal ingredient that the geeks turned their attention.
Rats are cheap, friendly, responsive and biodegradable. AND when they step on a mine, it doesn’t go off!
Now consider this. The chief engineer, Bart Weetjens, is a practicing Zen Buddhist Monk in Belgium. It would take someone as out-of-the-box as this to create this genius scheme.
And guess what. Mines is just the first. The rats have just been trained to detect tuberculosis! Yes, and they will do so with greater success than the difficult X-Rays and chemical tests otherwise used.
Rats to that, too!