Academic journal article The Psychological Record

Using Giant African Pouched Rats (Cricetomys Gambianus) to Detect Landmines

Academic journal article The Psychological Record

Using Giant African Pouched Rats (Cricetomys Gambianus) to Detect Landmines

Article excerpt

Many species have sensitive chemical-detection systems. For millennia, dogs' exquisite sense of smell has assisted human beings in hunting and in thwarting intruders. Trained dogs have detected landmines and other explosives, illicit drugs, pipeline leaks, and melanomas (Furton & Myers, 2001). Although Canis familaris is far and away the species whose chemical-detection abilities most often benefit humans, a few other species have been used (Habib, 2007). For example, personnel of Anti-Persoonsmijnen Ontmijnende Product Ontwikkeling (APOPO), a nonprofit organization devoted to social entrepreneurship, have trained rats to detect landmines and had them accredited as de-mining animals under International Mine Action standards. APOPO's work recently has garnered positive media attention in, for example, National Geographic, Business Week, The New York Times, BBC News, and African Geographic. In 2009 APOPO won a Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship. Skoll Awards recognize innovative and sustainable approaches to resolving urgent social issues.

Clearly, APOPO's use of pouched rats for landmine detection is promising. To date, no published report details how APOPO trains rats to detect mines. The present manuscript reviews how the rats are trained and deployed in the field, with special emphasis on challenges posed by the tasks they are required to perform and their unique characteristics.

Pouched Rats as Mine Detectors

Giant pouched rats, which are native to sub-Saharan Africa, are nocturnal and omnivorous members of the Nesomyidae family within the Muroidea superfamily. They are large colony-dwelling rodents, with adult body lengths of 25 to 45 cm and tail lengths of 35 to 45 cm. Adult females typically weigh 1 to 1.5 kg.; males are somewhat larger. Both sexes reach reproductive maturity at 7 to 8 months. Pregnant females give birth to 1 to 5 pups following a gestation period of 27 to 36 days; in the wild and in captivity, several litters can be produced each year. Cricetomys live up to 8 years in captivity. They are agricultural pests in the wild and an invasive species in Florida (USA). In Africa, they are sometimes hunted and eaten.

Ten years ago, Bart Weetjens founded APOPO. Because of the high cost of canine training and husbandry, Weetjens and his colleagues searched for an alternative to dogs for use in de-mining operations. They chose to study Cricetomys because the species has a good sense of smell, and is long-lived, easy to maintain, large enough to work on a lead, and native to Africa, the intended location for de-mining activities. Their initial attempts to work with animals caught in the wild failed because the rats were aggressive and easily startled. To produce more tractable rats, a breeding colony was established in which wild-caught males and females lived under conditions as close as possible to their natural environment. Pups were taken from their parents at various ages and handled extensively in an effort to socialize them. Through trial and error, APOPO personnel developed a standard procedure for producing gentle, easily trained rats (Verhagen, Cox, Mauchango, Weetjens, & Billet, 2003; Verhagen, Weetjens, Cox, Weetjens, & Billet, 2006).

In this procedure, the rats are weaned at 4 weeks of age and thereafter housed in pairs in cages with unlimited access to water and a nest box. To allow for easy identification and to emphasize the importance of individual animals, each rat is named and fitted with a subcutaneous passive integrated transponder tag. By ensuring that individual animals can be identified accurately, these tags play a key role in quality assurance in rats that are employed for mine clearance operations and undergo accreditation through a National Mine Action Authority (NMAA), as described later. The rats eat a varied diet of fruits, vegetables, grains, and commercial rodent chow. During weekdays, when training occurs, they consume most of their food during training sessions. …

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