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Stories of Change - How Apopo Rats are Saving Thousands of Lives

Author: Jordan Junge
Published Date: 7 July 2015

At SIX we think it is important to tell stories where social innovation has impacted people’s lives for the better. Our Stories of Change series tells you the stories that inspire us from around the world.

Sam, a farmer in Angola, used to watch in fear as children sometimes played in the field next to his house. His cow once wandered across the field and Sam had to risk his life to rescue his cow. This field was covered in land mines - hideous remnants of a war past. However, with the help of a few clever rats, the field next to Sam is now free of mines & he can watch his children play knowing they’ll survive.

Thousands of innocent young children and adults are killed each year across the world by mines left in previous wars. Consider Angola, which is one of the most mine-affected regions in the war with about one fifth of the population affected by landmines and explosive remnants of war (ERW), that’s over 4 million people. Traditional mine detection is often expensive, incredibly dangerous & unreliable. Miss one inch and you could leave the mine waiting for a child on their way to school.

APOPO’s rats have drastically changed the landscape by literally clearing millions of acres of land by training rats to sniff out mines, which are then safely disposed of. The Giant African Pouched Rat is perfect for the job as it’s a highly intelligent animal with a keen sense of smell that can be trained easily. The rats don’t weigh enough to set off the mine making this is an incredibly safe operation. The rats are widely available in sub-Saharan Africa and resilient to the environment and live for up to 8 years which ensures the sustainability of the project.


APOPO works in six countries (Mozambique, Thailand, Angola, Cambodia, Vietnam and Lao) and over 18 milion acres of land has now been cleared of mines. This has had a huge impact on communities, not only on improving safety but also on development. Frank Gregorio, program manager for the mine action program in Angola explained that ‘Once cleared, part of the area will be used to develop a market that will stimulate cross-border trade with neighbouring Congo, creating development opportunities and positive change in the lives and livelihoods of the local community”.


It's not just mines that the rats are used for; they’ve also been trained to detect tuberculosis.

There’s a desperate need for faster TB diagnosis particularly in overpopulated cities in sub-Saharan Africa. In 2013, 9 million people fell ill with TB around the world and 1.5 million died from the disease. Over 95% of TB deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries, and it is among the top 5 causes of death for women aged 15 to 44. The disease is airborne and spreads quickly. However, if it’s caught earlier, TB is treatable. 


The rats are trained to sniff out TB in a sample and are able to move more quickly and efficiently than a lab. A rat can screen hundreds of samples in 20 minutes - something that would take a lab technician days. APOPO have now screened over 300,000 individuals and detected over 8,000 cases - saving thousands of lives. They currently work in three countries but are looking to expand their operations.
|thinking outside of the box and using the hidden resource of rats, Apopo is changing communities around the world and saving thousands of lives.