Why rats? Turning to rats The National Police plan to eradicate illicit crops and land mines has for more than four years experimented with using rodents ─ in addition to their use of trained dogs ─ to detect anti-personnel mines in various parts of the country. The idea was borne from the APOPO organization’s experience in Tanzania. APOPO researches, develops, and deploys detection rat technology for humanitarian purposes. It is a registered charity in Belgium and is headquartered in Tanzania. APOPO has led demining programs in that African country with enviable results. In fact, Tanzania no longer is listed as having a high number of land mine victims. Top levels of the Colombian police forces and the Ministry of Defense gave free rein to those conducting the experiments using rodents to detect buried mines, mindful of the fact that mine-detecting dogs often activate the mines because of their weight. The rats used are from the species Rattus norvegicus, better known as albino rats, and they are trained in four critical phases. In the first, they try to socialize the rats to humans and other animals, such as dogs and cats. At the same time, the rats are trained to tolerate unusual sounds without scurrying away and hiding. “In the first phase, they primarily try to reduce the animals’ stress levels so that they can interact more calmly with their environment and not be startled by humans or animal species from which they would normally flee,” stated the project’s scientist, Luisa Fernanda Méndez, DVM, in reports provided to Diálogo by the Communications Office for the Colombian National Police. After the animals achieve a high level of sociability in their environment, the training efforts next focus on the rodents’ ability to recognize orders so they can respond to stimuli from the technicians who are in charge of training the animals. This recognition ability is necessary so they can be used without leashes or harnesses. The third phase in training the rodents to detect landmines is exposing them to explosive substances, first in the lab and later in the field. They are trained in 10 meter by 10 meter quadrants in order to prevent the rodents from being easily distracted while they are tracking odors. At first, the trainers build mazes in the lab with corridors and pathways that have different types of smells, but especially the scent of explosive substances. This way, the animal can learn to identify the scents and relate them to an incentive. When they are able to track and identify them with over 90 percent accuracy, the trainers begin the rodents’ field training. In the field, the albino rats, or the rodent demining squad, are trained in areas at measuring at most 10m x 10m, with barriers between the quadrants. This allows the animal to devote its full attention on searching for its object, “the treat”. In the fourth phase, trainers focus on the animals’ diets, ensuring that they are always sated and can concentrate their efforts on searching for the “treat” they receive for detecting the explosives. During this phase, trainers condition the rodents to not be distracted by edible plants or insects so their senses are focused on finding explosive substances. Their reward for finding explosives is a simple sugar pill, which the rats find irresistible. “The key is to develop a strict diet for the animal, so it is always satisfied and is only waiting for the treat. It can then focus on obtaining the treat and will not be distracted by other things that, in the field, it might consider as food, such as worms, flowers and grain,” stated Dr. Méndez’s report. By Dialogo January 11, 2011 Dear Sirs I believe that rats are the most suitable to find the location of landmines, however we count on the U.S. to locate the mines despite the fact it would be one by one and time consuming and we need to develop a method to provide us with a general map of the locations of the mines. This way we can detonate them in sequence as we will gain time and agility in the action. There is in Bogota and Switzerland studies with electromagnetic waves for detonations in series; however I request contact with CCCM AND THE SWEDISH EMBASSY TO EXCHANGE IDEAS. I WILL KEEP SEARCHING AND IF I FIND OUT ANYTHING I WILL WARN THEM; MEANWHILE I CAN ONLY WISH LUCK AND SUCCESS TO YOU. IN CASE OF FURTHER HELP, PLEASE NOTIFY MR. CARLOS DE MORAES Interesting information. Brilliant!!! An animal that can to learn this work. Congratulations to the those who put this into practice!!! They should be praised! Bogotá, D.C., Colombia, – Colombia is second only to Afghanistan in its annual number of land mine victims, according to a recent report by the Landmine and Cluster Munitions Monitor. But Colombian officials are hopeful that a new program that uses rats to detect the deadly hidden weapons will improve those statistics. Colombia recorded 764 land mine victims in 2009, according to the study released on Dec. 10 and sponsored by USAID, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines and the Embassy of Sweden. Although that number dropped by almost 15 percent from 2008, the countryside in many parts of the nation still is dangerous, especially because armed insurgent groups continue to plant mines. “The situation in Colombia remains dire. We still have the second highest number of victims of land mines in the world, only surpassed by Afghanistan. But worst of all are the armed conflict and the use of land mines as weapons of war by insurgent groups,” explained Álvaro Jiménez, director of the Colombian Campaign against Landmines (Campaña Colombiana Contra las Minas – CCCM). International Landmines Monitor and CCCM are especially concerned about mine injuries to civilians employed in the eradication of illicit crops. About 180 of the 2009 victims were working on drug eradication efforts when injured, including 52 who lost their lives. Colombia has taken important steps to eliminate the land mines, according to International Monitor. Authorities have swept and cleared mines from 326,223 square meters out of the nearly 50 square kilometers where mines are believed to have been planted. “Direct research and corroborating information have revealed that land mines are present in 650 municipalities. However, we must point out that the records are not precise with regard to the number of victims. In many parts of Colombia, especially where insurgent groups are active, such cases are not reported because people are afraid of the insurgent groups,” said the director of CCCM. Colombia has also asked to delay the deadline for complete removal of mines by 10 years, and their request to keep 586 mines for military training, pursuant to the provisions of the Ottawa Convention. According to statistics gathered by CCCM, out of the 32 departments in Colombia, only the archipelago of San Andrés, Providencia and Santa Catalina are free of land mines, while the most affected departments are Antioquia, Meta and Caquetá. These figures also indicate that at least 650 of the almost 1,200 municipalities have landmines buried in them. The decisión to employ rodents to detect landmines is largely due to the animals’ low weight, which makes it all but impossible for them to detonate the mines, Colombian police informed Diálogo. The researchers’ experience indicates that the lightest weight that will activate an explosive device is 420 grams (14.8 pounds). Albino rats never reach this weight, and therefore they run the least possible risk in searching, detecting and clearing fields of mines. At least this is what was demonstrated during clearing efforts conducted by Apopo in Tanzania. This allowed them to achieve a significant reduction in the number of victims among the persons involved in deactivating these lethal devices. Colombia’s new demining rodent squad is scheduled to begin operations in the first few months of 2011.