Mozambique was declared completely mine-free in 2015 with the assistance of Belgian social enterprise Apopo. Apopo trains rats to detect landmines and has also been active in the battle against tuberculosis (TB) for more than 15 years. And it doesn't stop there: In addition to rats, dogs have since been enlisted in by other life-saving initiatives. This is the extraordinary story of small animals that many loathe, but that can be of enormous service to humanity. We talked with CEO Christophe Cox about his heroes with a nose for landmines and TB.
Rats smell danger
Christophe is one of the Apopo's pioneers. He lives and works in Tanzania, where the NGO also has its operational base. Indirectly, from there, he manages 480 employees and almost as many animals across a number of countries. He has been active in Africa since the second half of the 1990s: "My first experience was in Kenya on an integrated rural development project, which as a substitute for my compulsory military service. The idea of using rats for mine detection originated with my old university friend Bart Weetjens. He came across the giant-pouched rat thanks to biology professor Ron Verhagen of the University of Antwerp, who had been doing research at the Tanzania's Sokoine Agricultural University in Mongoro. They have a highly developed sense of smell and weigh about one kilo; too light to detonate a landmine. In exchange for a food reward, they reveal where explosives are hidden in a minefield."
Rats with a nose for mines and TB are heroes.
Mine-free by 2025
In the foreseeable future, every region where there is war will be a potential operating territory for Apopo. But there is more: A number of countries have committed themselves to a deadline to become mine-free under an international convention. For many participating countries, that deadline is 2025. Our compatriot points out the challenge: "At the moment, there are still 59 countries that are partially ‘undermined’. While there is clearly light at the end of the tunnel, there are also new areas of conflict, such as Ukraine, which will need to start from square one once the war is over. The good news is that many countries are nearing the finish line. In Senegal, for example, we are working with Humanity & Inclusion (formerly Handicap International) to make the Casamance region mine-free. That involves several million square metres." Apopo ensured that Mozambique was declared completely landmine-free in 2015.
One year’s training
The life expectancy of these rats is about eight years, which is an important factor with regard to investment, as the animals are trained for a year. "Training the animals was a question of trial and error. It was not at all straightforward. In training, we use TNT as a target. But once ready, projects followed in Angola, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos." It is still what Christophe does, 25 years later. As the public face of Apopo, he is grateful for the academic and financial support. That toehold did not come immediately. "It took quite a long time for us to gain credibility within the sector. We were the odd man out, and people were quite wary of our mad-sounding idea, especially in the rather conservative de-mining sector."
Belgian shepherds (Malinois)
Apopo also contributed a lot to the development of the process. "At the start, every square metre was searched; inch by inch. Today, the process is more efficient, involving many surveys being done in
The tuberculosis programme became the second life-saving initiative pioneered by Apopo; with rats playing the lead role. "Our rats are not only faster and cheaper at checking samples than lab technicians, they have also proved themselves more effective. This process means fewer TB cases are overlooked. Rodents are able to check 40 samples in seven minutes. It would take a lab technician an entire day to check the same number of samples. Quick, inexpensive detection is crucial to containing the disease in Africa. We are currently carrying out this work in Mozambique, Tanzania and Ethiopia." Apopo is continuing to invest in new developments and applications. "Jointly with the Eindhoven University of Technology, we developed a rescue backpack that allows the rats to search, for example, under the rubble for survivors of earthquakes. Another innovation is the inspection of cargo loads for illegal wildlife products. Our quadrupeds are also trained to detect the degree of contamination in land remediation projects."
"I feel particularly comfortable in Tanzania. Initially, there was some uncertainty, and I missed a lot, especially food and cultural elements. But now, I feel completely at home in this beautiful country full of super friendly and nice people. To such an extent, in fact, that at the moment, I see very few reasons to return to Belgium. In fact, I could be very happily retire here. Overseas Social Security means I also have peace of mind about access to medical help when I retire. It truly provides a secure framework and peace of mind for continuing to work and live here for the rest of my working life.
Working outside Europe is an adventure in itself anyway, but the social protection makes that challenge a bit less daunting.
For me, it is a secure framework to operate within," Christophe Cox concludes.
Those interested can support a rat for just €9 per month. Visit the Apopo website(New window)!
Would you like to share your travel experiences?
Are you an expat or do you know someone with an inspiring experience abroad? Please don't hesitate to contact us at email@example.com. And who knows, you might inspire future expats with your story.