Mine sniffing

Humanitarian rats

I was convinced that I had written this post about one year ago when I published the original article in the Spanish magazine Muy Interesante [1]. After a thorough check through my blog I realized that I did not!

Luckily, yesterday Mabel sent me a link of an article published by the BBC mentioning that Magawa was awarded the PDSA Gold Medal [2]. I will explain…

Magawa is a Southern giant pouched rat and the award given to it by the UK charity People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA). The medal says “For animal gallantry or devotion to duty”. Of the many animal recipients of the award, Magawa is the first rat.

The PDSA medal. Credit: Andrew69. Public domain.

So, prompted by the news, here goes a post based on the above-mentioned article, adjusted to the present time.

WordReference.com defines a phobia as “a continuous irrational fear of something that leads to an overwhelming desire to avoid it”. The word comes from the Greek phobía (fear) as an exaggerated aversion to someone or something. The fear to rats and mice or musophobia (from Greek μῦς “mouse”) is one of the most common ones.

So, you would think that an encounter with a giant rat would lead to a terrible fear attack. However, this is not the case with these large rodents which are actually quite friendly and that I hope will be regarded even in a better light after you read these lines.

Although the taxonomy of the genus Cricetomys to which these African rats belong needs further revision, it is now accepted that there are four species: the Gambian pouched rat (C. gambianus), the Emin pouched rat (C. emini), the Kivu giant pouched rat (C. kivuensis) and the Southern giant pouched rat (C. ansorgei). The latter is the protagonist of this piece.

The Southern giant pouched rats can measure from 25 to 45cm with tails of up to 46cm and weigh up to 2kg. They are only distantly related to the real rats that are found in the Muridae family. Recent molecular studies place the Giant rats in the family Nesomyidae, part of an ancient radiation of African and Malagasy murids. The name “pouched rat” refers to the large pouches in their cheeks where they store food.

Pic 2. Adult rat. Copyright Caterina Caneva Saccardo/APOPO

These rats are omnivorous and feed on vegetation and small animals, especially insects.  They are very fond of filling their burrows with nuts, particularly palm nuts but also other nuts such as macadamias. Although they cannot apply the 21kg per cm2 needed to break them open, they do chew up their hard shells to devour the delicious and valuable nuts to our annoyance!

Pic 3. Macadamia nuts gnawed by the rats in Harare. Copyright: Bushsnob.

Like many other rodents such as hamsters, rabbits and guinea pigs, these rats are coprophagous as they ferment food in their distal intestines and produce soft faecal pellets containing still semi-digested food that they eat again to complete their assimilation.

Giant rats are capable of reproducing up to ten times a year with a gestation period of 27 to 36 days. One to five young are born at the same time as they are fed by the eight mammary glands that the females have.

Pic 4. Baby rats. Copyright Caterina Caneva Saccardo/APOPO

Giant rats are predominantly nocturnal [3] and they are an important food source in many parts of Africa where their meat is highly prized. In addition, although it may seem surprising, the giant rats do humanitarian work in several countries around the world!

APOPO [4] is a global, non-profit NGO registered in Belgium that uses Giant southern pouched rats for the removal of anti-personnel mines from past war theatres. To do this, they use the great sense of smell that these animals possess to detect trinitrotoluene (TNT).

APOPO has and is supporting mine clearance in Angola, Mozambique and Cambodia and plans are underway to start supporting Zimbabwe and possibly Colombia with mine clearance.

In order to work reliably, the rats must be trained for an average of nine months at an estimated cost of 6,000 Euros each. At the end of the process they must pass the accreditation tests before being “employed”. Once accredited, they are able to work for 4-5 years before retirement.

Pic 5. A technician with a giant rat. Copyright Caterina Caneva Saccardo/APOPO

Rats, being relatively light, can walk around in minefields sniffing out mines without the danger of being blown up. Their role is to find them and then have them removed or detonated by personnel specialized in this dangerous activity.

Pic 6. Rat detecting mines. Copyright: Aaron Gekoski, APOPO.

The advantage of using these rats is their ability to detect mines more quickly than traditional methods and without the danger of accidental explosions. A rat can search for mines in an area the size of a tennis court in half an hour. It would take an operator about four days to cover the same area.

The mine-clearing process

One of the severe consequences of conflicts are the unexploded mines that remainand cause terrible accidents to the population of the area. They stop them returningto their homes and work the land to survive after the conflict.

Mine removal starts with planning the work reviewing existing knowledge beforeproceeding with the work. The rats are a component of the process.

The use of the rats speeds up mine cleaning and allow the inhabitantsto return to their homes in less time than if only the conventional removalmethods would be used. Images by Art work by APOPO, modified by the Bushsnob

As if their support for the important humanitarian work of mine clearance would not be enough, rats are also capable of detecting human tuberculosis and APOPO is working on the diagnosis of the disease together with more than 140 public clinics in Tanzania, Mozambique and Ethiopia.

Pic 7. Rat checking samples of human tuberculosis. Copyright Caterina Caneva Saccardo/APOPO

These incredible rodents are capable of finding the disease in sputum samples declared negative by the APOPO’s associated clinics. As part of the existing collaboration APOPO confirms the findings of the rats in its laboratory [5] and then notifies the clinics. A rat can examine one hundred samples in less than twenty minutes, a task that would take a clinic technician four days to complete.

Despite the work done, there are still 60 countries suffering from the threat of mines that constitute a real structural barrier to development and economic growth in post-conflict situations. Thousands of innocent children and adults are injured or killed by mines. Detecting mines is difficult, dangerous, costly and time consuming.

Tuberculosis leads the world in causes of death from infectious diseases and there are ten million new cases per year and about 1.6 million people die from this disease every year.

It is clear then that there is still a long way to go and that rats have a very important role to play so support for organizations such as APOPO is essential.

The fine sense of smell of giant rats can offer other possibilities and APOPO is working on a project to use them to detect pangolin scales and African hardwoods. It can also be thought that rats could be useful in detecting rhinoceros’ horn and ivory as well as drugs and other forbidden substances.

So, back to Magawa the gold medal winner mine-detecting African giant pouched rat. It has sniffed out 39 landmines and 28 unexploded munitions in his career and placed itself in the PDSA “Hall of Fame”.

The award brings to our attention the silent and valuable work that humanitarian organizations are doing in clearing mines, However, we must not forget that new mines are still being produced and will be used and that there are still an estimated six million mines still buried in Cambodia alone!

[1] See: https://www.muyinteresante.es/naturaleza/articulo/ratas-gigantes-para-detectar-minas-antipersona-731567530868

[2] BBC: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-54284952 and https://www.pdsa.org.uk/what-we-do/animal-awards-programme/pdsa-gold-medal/magawa#vid

[3] See: https://bushsnob.com/2018/12/06/thieves/ in this blog.

[4] APOPO stands for Anti-Persoonsmijnen Ontmijnende Product Ontwikkeling.

[5] With tests approved by the World Health Organisation.