Loading...
Africa: Bomb Squad Rats
Now Watching
Africa: Bomb Squad Rats

After decades of civil war, and years of work clearing up after it, Mozambique is slowly moving towards being declared free of land mines. All thanks to man's unlikely new best friend: the rat.

Flash Player 9.0.115+ or HTML5 video support is required to play this video.
Loading...

Purchase the DVD at Journeyman TV.

Produced by SBS.

Loading...

Share this video

Include start time Get current time
Include related videos, articles & actions
Loading...

Segment 1

TITLE
Bomb Squad Rats
ABDULLAH MCHOMVU [Rat Trainer, Apopo]
As you see, here is a place where Garvey lives. Maybe I can open the cage so that you can have a look at Garvey.
VOICEOVER
Here in Mozambique, the Cricetomys gambianus, or, as it's better known, the African giant pouched rat, is no longer feared or reviled.
ABDULLAH MCHOMVU
Yes, this is Garvey. Come out.
VOICEOVER
In fact, rats like Garvey are fondly admired by their human colleagues.
ALBERT ZACHARIA [Rat Trainer, Apopo]
It's a very good rat. Because they're social, and they're hardworking.
VOICEOVER
Albert and Abdullah are two rat trainers who have helped give the rodents a makeover from vermin to lifesaver. But even they admit to being skeptical in the beginning.
ALBERT ZACHARIA
Mostly in our African culture, rats are considered as a useless animal. So, at first when I heard that rats are being used for demining, I didn't believe it.
VOICEOVER
Here at this rat training camp in Chokwe, near the Limpopo River, these furry heroes are going through their final training. Running on lines between their handlers, they are sniffing for the bits of nonlethal TNT that have been laid here. When the rats detect some explosive, they indicate by scratching the ground. The trainers then make a clicking noise to let them know they can return for a reward.
ANDREW SULLY [Program Manager, Apopo]
What we are trying to do is here the rats are an African solution to an African problem.
VOICEOVER
Andrew Sully works for Apopo, the Belgian NGO which runs the rat program. He says the inspiration came from scientific work dating back decades.
ANDREW SULLY
Well rats have actually been used for the detection of explosives for many, many years. I mean, there were experiments using laboratory rats back in the 1950s if not before that.
VOICEOVER
Putting that research into practice hasn't been easy, and each rat takes two years to train. But they have some distinct advantages over their canine counterparts. Unlike sniffer dogs, they're loyal to food, rather than one particular trainer. And they can also be more effective on windy days, like today.
ABDULLAH MCHOMVU
He still can manage to get the smell of the TNT. If it would be a dog it would be difficult for them to get because the dog is somewhat higher from the ground, but the rat is very low from the ground. That's why he can manage also to get the smell.
VOICEOVER
It's early morning and the rat team is getting ready to move out.
ALBERT ZACHARIA
It's good to travel during ... early because if the temperature gets higher then the rats also start to face some problems of hydration and start to lose energy.
VOICEOVER
Their mission is to demine a remote rural village, five hours away by road. Sadly, for the rats, it's economy class all the way.
ALBERT ZACHARIA
Those cages, we just use them for traveling, but if we arrive there we'll remove the rats from the traveling cages and we put them in bigger cages where they can play around and enjoy themselves.
VOICEOVER
Demining teams have spent more than a decade trying to clear Mozambique of land mines. Millions of them were laid during the 10-year fight for independence and the two decades of civil war that followed. Today, the rat team is on its way to the former garrison village of Hate-Hate.
ANDREW SULLY
From the initial surveys that have been done I think there have been at least five or six mine accidents in this sort of horseshoe shape which was the mined area around the barracks.
VOICEOVER
This area is currently bone dry, but soon the rains will come and these roads will be impassable. The deminers know they'll have to move quickly.
ANDREW SULLY
So we'll probably run 12 rats a day, which will be 1,200 square meters a day. So a task like this we'd expect to take three weeks ... three or four weeks.
SINGING WOMEN
We are going to tell you about things in our country.
VOICEOVER
In the village of Hate-Hate there's great excitement at the imminent arrival of the demining team.
SINGING WOMEN
In our country, in Hate-Hate, we need peace. We need lasting peace.
VOICEOVER
Only a few hundred people have returned here since the end of the civil war and almost all of them have been affected by land mines. Marta Massingue witnessed the death of one of the villagers.
MARTA MASSINGUE [Hate-Hate Villager]
The man came from there. He went straight to the tree. A path goes that way. The path goes to Hate-Hate. There was a land mine. When he stepped on it he was killed.
VOICEOVER
Marta's had to learn to live with land mines, inventing stories to keep first her children and now her grandchildren safe.
MARTA MASSINGUE
We tell them that if they go that way they will get burnt, that there will be fire and they will get burnt. But if they go along the path they will be fine.
VOICEOVER
For 10 years, villagers have been waiting for help to clear the mines. Now it's at hand, they're surprised to hear what form the help is taking.
ALEXANDER SITOE [Hate-Hate Villager]
The rat ... I am so surprised because it's a rat. I don't believe it. I don't believe it because I've never seen it.
MARTA MASSINGUE
I don't know whether it's true rats will be able to smell them, but we will be so excited if they do because then we can live in peace without the land mines.
VOICEOVER
Five hours after they set off, the rats have finally made it, but the journey has clearly exacted a toll. Rat team leader, Vendeline Shirima, is worried about his rodents: they all appear to have passed out.
INTERVIEWER
It is stress or is it heat?
VENDELINE SHIRIMA [Rat Team Leader, Apopo]
They became a little bit tired because of the journey and also the weather, due to the heat.
VOICEOVER
Luckily, today is a rest day -- for the rats at least. The demining team is busy clearing the scrub before the rats can be put to work. Already they've spotted two land mines. They almost drove over them.
ANDREW SULLY
We actually know that there have been eight mine victims around this area. So we've got a high expectancy of finding more mines.
VOICEOVER
The next day, work begins early. The rats have recovered, but there's no breakfast for them. Instead, they're kept peckish to keep them focused, and only fed when their day is done. The rat handlers suit up before they venture out to the minefield.
ALFREDO ADAMO [Rat Handler, Apopo]
Actually, it's protective gear, so it's much safer to wear it rather than going without it.
VOICEOVER
Alfredo Adamo gave up his job as a schoolteacher to work with the rats, and he's proud of his new career.
ALFREDO ADAMO
Because I know every time we find a mine and we destroy it, I know if it continued there something bad should happen, either to a person or to an animal, actual cattle or whatever.
VOICEOVER
The area the deminers are working in today lies either side of a track leading down to a borehole, the area's main water source.
VENDELINE SHIRIMA
So they put mines in this area in order to protect those local people inside here.
VOICEOVER
The rats are put to work traversing the minefield. They are not heavy enough to set off a land mine, and their scratching when they find one is lighter still.
REPORTER
So, Alfredo, have any of the rats indicated anything yet?
ALFREDO ADAMO
Yes, two rats have indicated.
VOICEOVER
Each carefully pegged out box will be gone over not once, but twice by two different rats. It's a system designed to eliminate error.
VENDELINE SHIRIMA
Yeah, the rats, they show indications, but we're not yet going to clarify to see what are they indicating.
VOICEOVER
Villagers have been warned to stay away while the rats get down to work, but this is cattle country, and the main track to the water hole runs right through where the demining teams are working. Rats may not be heavy enough to set off land mines, but the cows most certainly can. And the dogs are an added threat to the rats. For the rat handlers, it's a nervous start to the operation here.
ALFREDO ADAMO
I was actually worried. I know local people really do know about the existence of land mines, and they believe they know the right path, but I don't need to believe in that because I know cows can just walk wherever they want.
REPORTER
Then set off a mine while you're working?
ALFREDO ADAMO
Yes, I was actually not very comfortable.
VOICEOVER
Cerveza is the leader of the bomb disposal team, and has a close relationship with the rats.
CERVEZA [Bomb Disposal Team Leader, Apopo]
We understand what rats are like. We've been friends for ... We're with them every day. At night, if they make a noise, we check on them. In the day, we're together in the field. Day after day, we're with the rats.
VOICEOVER
Cerveza's team needs total confidence in the abilities of their pointy-nosed colleagues. Once the rats have sniffed out the explosives, these men have to walk through the minefield to verify what's been found.
CERVEZA
I'm confident about the work that rats do. Yes, I trust them completely.
VOICEOVER
The rats' day finishes early. They're prone to develop skin cancer if they get too much sun. But, by the end of today's shift, they've already found this fragment of a mortar mine.
CERVEZA
This is what's left of it. It's already exploded.
VOICEOVER
And two live land mines. The final job of the day is to safely detonate the rat's haul.
CERVEZA
It's TNT, almost all of it. There's 150 grams. This is the detonator.
VOICEOVER
It's slow and painstaking work, but bit by bite, Mozambique is being cleared of land mines, and it's all thanks to the work of man's new best friend.
TITLE
[end credits]