They famously helped clear former warzones of landmines. But, as Britt Collins reports, Africa’s sniffer rats could soon be the latest recruits in the fight against both illegal wildlife trafficking and Covid-19.
An elite squad of sniffer troops are hard at work, scurrying through boxes scattered around a field in Tanzania’s southern highlands. APOPO, the Morogoro-based non-profit that pioneered using African giant pouched rats to find landmines, is teaching the rodents to detect the smell of pangolin scales and other illegal wildlife products as part of Africa’s never-ending battle against international smugglers.
Known for sniffing out buried explosives with great success, these forest-dwelling rodents, whose sense of smell rivals that of bloodhounds, could soon turn their mighty noses to protecting other animals being smuggled out of Africa for the illegal wildlife markets of Asia.
Unlike sniffer dogs, the rats, which are only three-foot long from nose to tail, can squeeze into tight, hard-to-reach spaces and scramble up shipping containers and through cargo stuffed with poached pangolins or other illicit animal body parts.
Blessed with super-sensitive nostrils to relocate squirreled-away food and navigate burrows through the dark, the nocturnal mammals are able to sniff out pangolin scales, which smugglers often hide beneath other strong-smelling products, such as coffee or spices, to throw customs officers off the scent.
‘Rats are extremely intelligent and quick to learn. So far, our rats have been trained to detect pangolin scales and an endangered ebony wood, which is illegally logged in Madagascar,’ said Dr Cindy Fast, APOPO’s head of training and behavioural research.
‘Dogs have been doing this type of work for decades, but they’re quite expensive and struggle in the hot and dry climate in Africa.’
The docile animals, sometimes known as Gambian pouched rats, are easy to train and transport between locations, resistant to many tropical diseases and well-adapted to the environments they work in.
APOPO’s ‘HeroRATs’, so named because of their life-saving work clearing landmines, are remarkably effective. Magawa, the charity’s most successful mine-sniffer, recently made international headlines for receiving the PDSA animal charity’s Gold Medal for bravery. The seven-year rodent has sniffed out 39 landmines and 28 munitions in Cambodia since he was trained by the charity.
Over 20 years, Africa’s sniffer rats have unearthed more than 108,000 landmines, remnants of war buried in the earth in some of the world’s deadliest post-conflict zones.
According to APOPO, one rat is capable of searching a field the size of a tennis court in 20 minutes, which could take a human de-miner, who must rely on metal detectors that send constant false alarms, as much as four days. Magawa’s bomb-detecting colleagues are still working tirelessly all over the world to protect people from deadly landmines.
They were recently tasked with clearing minefields inside the Sengwe Wildlife Corridor, the largest conservation area in the world spanning Zimbabwe, South Africa and Mozambique. This saved the lives of not only the local populations and livestock but also elephants and other wildlife that migrate between the region’s economically important reserves and parks.
Hand-raised by humans from infancy, the mega rodents are trained to paw the ground when they smell TNT and are given a treat for every successful landmine detected.
They work for their favourite snacks, including bananas, peanuts, sun-dried sardines and avocados.
Too small to set off the landmines, to date no animals have lost their lives in the line of duty.
Many people assume that rats are used for these dangerous missions because they’re inexpensive and considered expendable by researchers.
But APOPO was founded by an animal-loving humanitarian and its rats are treated as the heroes they are, and given celebrity names, such as Bowie, Blondie, Bob Dylan, Jane Goodall and Maya Angelou.
Bart Weetjens, a Dutch industrial engineer, came up with the idea in 1995 when he was exploring solutions for the global landmine problem.
As a kid growing up in Antwerp, Belgium, he kept rats as pets and knew how smart, social and trainable they were.
When Weetjens came across an article about the use of gerbils for scent detection, he wondered if rats could be taught to recognise the chemical compound of explosives.
He consulted Professor Ron Verhagen, a rodent expert at the University of Antwerp who had worked in Africa for many years, and he recommended African giant pouched rats for the job.
During his time in Tanzania, Verhagen had even seen a villager walk one on a lead.
These critters, natives to the sub-Saharan region, were already adapted to the environmental conditions most in need of mine-clearance support, which at the time were Mozambique and Angola.
The Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT), a conservation organisation based in South Africa, works collaboratively with APOPO on the wildlife-scent detection project.
‘Having seen APOPO’s amazing work using African pouched rats in other settings, we thought that success could be extended to help fight against wildlife crime,’ said Ashleigh Dore, EWT’s project manager.
‘We originally sourced funding from US Fish and Wildlife Service’s ‘Combating Wildlife Trafficking Program’ and then the UK government through the ‘Illegal Wildlife Trade Challenge Fund’ to test whether the rats could detect wildlife specimens.
The project, currently funded by Wildlife Conservation Network, is truly ground-breaking.’
APOPO is training a squad of pouched rats, nine seasoned sleuths and eight newcomers, for wildlife-scent detection.
‘We’ve just started exploring, but have a lot of evidence suggesting our rats can quickly learn new scent targets while remembering those they’ve already learned,’ explained Fast.
‘The rat moves into the training area, a mock shipping environment, where boxes have been placed.
'Some have been loaded with the target scent hidden inside, while most boxes contain non-target ‘dummy’ scents.
‘The rats have generalised well to scales collected from more than one pangolin. We haven’t trained or tested them with live pangolins or other pangolin products yet.’
One of the difficulties has been access to pangolin parts for training.
Scales are tightly regulated and it has been challenging to acquire samples from all four African species of pangolin.
‘Whether or not the different species smell noticeably different to the rat is a question we intend to answer in the future,’ Fast added.
‘With the promising results we’ve gathered so far, we hope to begin field training and tests next year.’
After successful training, the super-sniffer detectives will be deployed at airports, national parks, seaports and borders, initially in Tanzania, to scour shipments of pangolins.
Wildlife trafficking has continued during the Covid-19 pandemic and pangolins, whose scales are used in traditional Chinese ‘medicine’ for a variety of unproven treatments, are in a constant state of crisis.
Demand for the scales of the shy, nocturnal animals, which look like scaly armadillos but are actually related to bears and dogs, now exceeds that for elephant tusks or rhino horns.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimates that a pangolin is taken from the wild every five minutes, which equates to the loss of more than one million animals in the last decade, pushing all eight species toward extinction.
The team of pangolin-sniffing rats could soon be patrolling ports and borders.
‘Our goal is to train and test the rats within a real seaport environment next year,’ said Fast.
In a series of training stages that increasingly resemble real-world conditions, the rats are fitted with backpacks that hold a tiny video camera and small beeper, to which they quickly became accustomed to wearing.
‘They have all been trained to trigger a microswitch by pulling a small ball attached to their harness when they detect the target scent,’ Fast explained.
‘This makes it possible for the rat to alert the handler when it has found something, even if the handler is out of view.’
Someday these unlikely heroes could be trained to search for other widely trafficked wildlife contraband, such as lion bones, rhino horns and elephant tusks.
But it’s not just other animals the rats are helping save.
They are also being used to detect tuberculous (TB) in humans and could soon be used to sniff out Covid-19.
APOPO recently received a $725,000 grant from the Belgian government to train rats to detect Covid-19 in the Mozambican cities of Maputo, Matola and Marracuene.
The scheme, which is being run in partnership with the Mozambican National Health institute (INS) and the Eduardo Mondlane University in Maputo hopes to replicate the rats’ incredible work in detecting cases of TB.
APOPO’s rats have already proved one of the best tools that scientists have in detecting early cases of the infectious disease, which kills 1.4 million people a year.
The rodents can sniff more saliva samples for TB in 10 minutes than a lab technician can analyse in a day.
They’ve proved so successful in Tanzania, Mozambique and Ethiopia, where they’ve been used, that they’ve increased detection rates by 40 per cent, identifying 20,000 cases that would otherwise have been missed, and preventing the onward transmission to an estimated 160,000 more people.
Rats don’t come cheap. It costs around $7,000 to train each of the charity’s 300 rats, and takes around nine months before they are ready to be deployed around the world.
The rats are also shipped to Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam to detect landmines there.
Unlike dogs, which are notoriously tricky to train, most African pouched rats graduate from scent-detection school with flying colours.
‘They’re truly a pleasure to work with. And if you’re lucky, you’ll even get a sweet lick or two,’ said Fast, who spent a decade studying animal cognition with all sorts of animals, like horses, pigeons and hermit crabs.
She has a soft spot for rats and even adopted a few.
‘They’re fun, sociable and inquisitive creatures, so it’s hard not to develop bonds with them. Knowing the rats will be well-cared for in new homes and saving lives makes it easier to say goodbye when they graduate from training.’
Fast recalled visiting the minefields in Cambodia, witnessing a recently graduated rat as it successfully discovered explosives.
‘When the de-miner moved in, it was confirmed that there was an unexploded ordinance buried in the ground a few feet where I was standing. It gave me chills, but I felt like a proud parent.’
The sniffer rats only work mornings, as its too hot to work midday.
Like everyone else, they have weekends off, chilling out in the playpens with their rodent friends and hanging out with their handlers.
After five or six years, or once they’re no longer keen to work, the rats, who can live up to nine years in captivity, spend their golden years in large enclosures, furnished with clay nesting pots, climbing ropes, running wheels and tunnels.
The retired rats get fresh locally sourced produce, weekly vet inspections and continued socialisation with the animal-welfare team members.
Such thoughtfulness underscores every aspect of their lives until the end.
‘We began the tradition of burying the HeroRATs that passed away in the early days,’ explained Fast.
‘Our staff in different countries have different cultures, and they each honour the animals that have passed in their own way. In Tanzania, our staff will sing a song or two, while in Cambodia they hand-build wooden grave markers and take a moment of silence.’
Friends, not foes
Few mammals are so reviled and persecuted as rats – which are seen as being dirty, diseased, invasive.
But rats are increasingly being used around the world for jobs previously carried out by dogs and scientists.
In the Netherlands, for example, police forensics teams use common brown rats to find gunpower residue to solve crimes.
Several animal-therapy and assistance programmes for autistic kids, elderly and disabled people in the United States have traded in their companion dogs for domesticated rats.
Many other jobs that are currently done by dogs, such as drug enforcement, border patrol, rescue missions to sniff out victims of earthquakes and cadaver searches, could be done by the rodents in the near future.
Rats may be known as vermin, and considered expendable in most parts of the world – up to 100 million rats and mice a year are killed in American lab experiments alone.
But from detecting landmines to Covid-19, APOPO is just scratching the surface of the extraordinary things these much-maligned creatures can do.
To sponsor a life-saving rat for around $12.50 a month, see apopo.org.
At the last count, Covid-19 had infected 35 million people worldwide, leaving more than a million dead.
Not since the Spanish flu of the early 20th century has the world witnessed such a rapid death toll from a viral disease.
In the 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic, more than 500 million people were infected worldwide, with 50 million deaths.
Global organisations and governments initially responded to the Covid-19 pandemic by calling on people to wash their hands and use social distancing to limit the spread of the viral infection.
The use of one subsequent measure of control – lockdown – has become very controversial, especially in Africa.
Total lockdown involves enforcing complete limitation of movement, and asking people to stay indoors for a minimum of two weeks – the presumed incubation period of the disease.
The aim is that the transmission chain of the disease would be broken, ultimately bringing it under control.
People have, however, questioned the wisdom behind such drastic measures, regarding it as panicky if not downright dangerous – not least because Africa and most of its 1.35 billion people are very disadvantaged.
According to a 2018 report by the United Nations, Africa was home to some 70 per cent of the world’s poorest people, with about 422 million – or one in three people in Africa – living below poverty line.
That’s nearly half a billion people living on less than $1.90 a day.
The effects of total lockdown will play out subtly in Africa. Many African children die before their first birthday, with 27 per cent of children not seeing out their first year in 2019.
Depressingly, the lockdowns may worsen this.
A study by one US charity predicted there would be an additional 2.3 million child deaths due to the disruption of health services during the lockdown this year.
Women have not been able to take their children to clinics for immunizations against neonatal tetanus, tuberculosis (TB), whooping cough and other antigens, all of which remain serious childhood killers in most communities in Africa.
An analysis by the World Health Organization (WHO) projected a resurgence of these childhood killers, and an extra 200,000 fatalities from TB alone because of disruptions to healthcare caused by the pandemic.
Access to anti-retroviral therapy has also been affected, according to the WHO.
There has also been a disruption in vital drug supplies because of lockdowns. It is predicted that this disruption could also lead to half a million deaths from Aids-related illnesses alone.
To make matters worse, it could also lead to drug resistance. This means that even after the lockdown has ended, Aids patients might no longer respond to the drugs used for their routine treatment, leading to complications from the disease and eventually death.
There are also serious concerns about how a disruption to the supply of mosquito nets and antimalarial drugs could be negatively impacting the fight against malaria in Africa, with several countries reporting rises in malaria deaths during the pandemic.
In Africa, it has become a tradition to use insecticide-treated bed nets against mosquito bites. Any disruption to their supply will cause deaths to rise.
According to World Malaria Report, 228 million cases of malaria occurred worldwide in 2018, leading to 405,000 deaths.
It is estimated that Africa accounted for 94 per cent of total global mortalities.
Apart from deaths, much of the poverty in Africa has been attribute to malaria, which is estimated to result in loses of about $12 billion a year from increased healthcare costs, reduced productivity and a decrease in tourism in African countries.
Malaria is also a serious contributor to infant mortality in Africa. It has been shown to cause abortions and still births, leading to some 200,000 infant deaths a year.
But it’s not just other diseases that are on the rise. Maternal health has also been severely affected during the lockdown.
Even in the US, where maternal mortality is low, it is known that maternity wards in some health facilities were converted to accommodate Covid-19 patients.
There were also offers of induced labour to get women in and out of hospitals as quickly as possible to limit exposure to infection with the virus.
Maternal health, meanwhile, has taken a deadly turn for the worse in Africa, where services have been less accessible and less affordable for millions of women in dire need of help.
A study in the medical journal The Lancet estimated there may be more than 12,000 extra maternal deaths in Africa because of the pandemic.
The predictions for neonatal deaths are even more staggering. According to the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, anywhere between a quarter of a million and 1.1 million children might die because of problems created during the pandemic.
If true, it would echo the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, when, between 2014 and 2016, the use of maternal and neonatal services dropped so much, the rise in maternal deaths, neonatal deaths and stillbirths outnumbered the deaths caused directly by Ebola.
Moreover, a study by UN Women revealed that women faced a higher risk of gender-based violence because of Covid-19 lockdowns.
Cases of domestic violence, particularly against women and girls, as well as rape and sexual assaults, have increased in many countries around the world, including Nigeria, where an increase in health, financial and security worries are thought to have created tensions in confined, crowded households.
There is an even more serious angle to this grotesque story: mass unemployment.
A vast number of Africans are not engaged in formal paid employment and rely on piece-meal work on farms, factories or construction sites, or in other unstable roles such as cobbling, wheelbarrow pushing or petty trading. According to World Bank reports, informal workers, most of whom are women, are responsible for more than 90 per cent of the workforce in sub-Saharan Africa.
Lockdowns have ensured that this crucial way of living is severely disrupted, resulting in hunger, malnutrition, frustration and despondency.
With so much disadvantage, many think the decision by governments to apply total lockdowns may have been misplaced.
They may be right. Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa, has recorded less than 60,000 cases of Covid-19 and just over 1,100 deaths in a country of up to 200 million people.
The hunger, starvation, malnutrition and deaths caused by the lockdown on such a large population may not be easy to track.
But it is easy to assume that many more people could have been killed by lockdown-induced poverty than the number attributed to the virus.
It may be easy to blame governments for taking hasty decisions on the lockdown issue. If truth be told, they may have been panicked into lockdowns.
The World Health Organization predicted 10 million cases within the first six months of occurrence of the disease, and cited the prospect of Africa’s fragile health systems being overwhelmed by the number of expected deaths.
Without emergency aid, other United Nations experts said, there could be 1.2 billion cases worldwide within six months and 3.3 million deaths.
With these loud predictions, many advanced countries went for a total lockdown, and predictably, many African countries followed suit.
But while the advanced countries may be able to pay their citizens not to work, African countries cannot afford such luxuries, and have been left in the lurch.
It is not so easy to correct the trajectory when dealing with a disease that has successfully defeated many expert predictions.
But we are now left to wonder how much sense there was in the total lockdown.
We are also left to ask whether in blindly following the lockdown route, African governments did not end up shooting themselves – and us – in the foot.