In a unique project funded by the UK taxpayer, giant Gambian rats are being used to detect mines and other hazards in Mozambique. The idea is the brainchild of Buddhist monk Bart Weetjens, whose Apopo charity has been clearing mines since 1997. Apopo also uses the rats to detect tuberculosis in humans. Weetjens, who kept rodents as a child in Belgium, says rats are ideal as they are native to the country and sustainable.
Although loathed by most people, and famously employed to horrific effect in Room 101 in George Orwell's dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, the charity refers to its rats as "hero rats" and on its website explains how the rats are used to clear mines:
"Rats systematically search the suspected areas in half-metre lanes. According to international mine action standards, two accredited mine detection rats will search the area consecutively for full clearance. When a rat has indicated a mine, a metal detector is used to clear a safe lane to the indicated spot."
The Mozambique project is being partially funded by the UK's Department for International Development (DfID) as part of a programme to eradicate landmines in the world's most afflicted countries. As a legacy of its 1964-75 fight for independence and the civil war which followed, Mozambique was once one of the most mined countries on earth.
International Development Secretary Justine Greening said: "British funding has helped to destroy thousands of mines across Mozambique. This not only saves lives but frees up valuable fertile land on which to grow crops and contribute to the economy."
The Gambian rats, which can grow to three feet in length, have poor eyesight but are highly intelligent and able to walk over mines without setting them off. A trained rat can cover 14 times more land than a human at a fraction of the cost and risk. Rats have cleared 2,500 mines and 14,000 other pieces of unexploded ordnance, ammunition and small arms. The DfID say Mozambique could be declared mine-free by the end of 2014.
Watch A Day in the Life of a Hero Rat on YouTube, below: