HeroRAT- No ordinary rat

Dr Sima Barmania

homeimage 300x159 HeroRAT  No ordinary ratQuite sheepishly, I admit that until recently the triumph of the HeroRAT had managed to escape my attention. I suspect my lack of knowledge of these furry labourers was partly due to my self-confessed rat prejudice.  I tend to avoid all things rodent since my nocturnal encounter with a rat in Papua New Guinea last year, which woke me up from my slumber as it scurried from my leg across my bed. It was far too intimate a meeting for my liking and left me completely startled, aphasic and positively terrified. Perhaps more uneasy was the perfunctory comment from my colleague the next morning: “Did you check your feet?”

Bart Weetjens, founder of HeroRAT holds a very different sentiment towards rats:  “I always had a passion for rodents”, he states with pride. He recounts how as a child he raised and sold rodents for pocket money; perhaps an indication of the entrepreneur to come.

However, it took some time to connect the dots between his adoration of these creatures with his love of Africa, where he has resided for most of his life; the trajectory of which resulted in him founding Apopo, an organisation that trains rats to be instrumental in saving lives by detecting landmines and to screen for Tuberculosis.

Rats are the perfect labourer; they enjoy repetitive tasks, are intelligent and are too light in weight to set off landmines. Apopo uses the African giant pouched rat, which is endemic to Sub-Saharan Africa. These rats are docile, sociable and are able to store and retrieve food underground based on their great sense of smell. In fact, rats have more genetic material relevant to olfaction than any other mammal and are also far cheaper to transport than their dog counterparts.

They are weaned from the litter at four weeks and socialised at six weeks and taught to associate a click with food, then trained to associate a particular scent through a combination of click training and food rewarding. The African Giant has a lifespan of 8 years which is a good return given it takes 194 days to train, effectively 9 months.

A fully trained HeroRAT has the capacity to clear up to 100 square metres of land in 20 minutes, far quicker than the manual detection techniques currently available. In addition, there is considerable financial advantage as the HeroRAT cost $1.1 per square metre to clear as opposed to mechanical landmines techniques that cost over $2 per square metre.

To date Apopo have returned 2 million square metres to the population and operate in Tanzania, Mozambique and 9 other African countries. Given the economic and social burden that landmines constitute to development, the impact of this innovation is immense and is changing the paradigm of mine detection.

Nevertheless, these rats have many talents and have also been utilized to detect Tuberculosis.  They are highly sensitive to the odour of sputum samples and are used in conjunction with hospitals as a second line screening tool, having successfully diagnosed 1900 cases that were previously undetected by microscopy. Tuberculosis constitutes a major public health issue; The World Health Organisation estimated that in 2009, 9.4 million people globally were affected with TB and 1.7 million of these cases proving fatal. Thus effective detection and subsequent treatment is crucial.

Bart is a new breed of Social Entrepreneur, an Ashoka fellow, keen to apply business principles to the social world but also equally committed to empowering local communities to develop new skills, creating jobs and ultimately providing a more sustainable venture.

Nevertheless, Bart, a Belgian Buddhist monk is gracefully humble and reluctant to take the credit for his success believing that- “the rats are the heroes”.

Given the affection Bart has for his workers, It is hard to not find the HeroRAT endearing; admittedly, It may be a while before I can have a face to face interaction with a rodent but perhaps I could be convinced to adopt HeroRAT.

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  • Guest

    Nuts! Who woulda thought, eh?!

  • Guest

    ‘A fully trained HeroRAT’. I WANT ONE.

  • german_player

    Can’t help it but starting to admire these rodents. Often portrait as evil, they turn out to be life savers.

  • SmileyPip

    An interesting article….Did not know about these unsung heroes…but do now, and they are just that – heroes!

  • David Murphy

    Sounds nice, but local rats in Britain carry diseases and are very destructive.

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