Maputo — A small army of landmine-detecting rats is to be redeployed in Mozambique in a push to meet a deadline to have the country declared free of mines this year.
Belgian non-governmental organisation APOPO trains African giant pouched rats to sniff out the explosives in landmines by conditioning them to associate the scent with rewards of food.
The rats, which weigh about as much as a small domestic cat, are light enough to move over terrain without setting off the mines. They are followed by a team of mine removal experts with metal detectors.
Last year, APOPO received international funding of US$4.5 million from various donors and cleared 250 hectares of mined land in Mozambique. This year it is redeploying 78 rats to continue the work.
Eradicating all landmines from the country this year would mean Mozambique would fulfil its obligations under the Ottawa Treaty, an agreement the country signed in 1997 and which came into effect in March 1999.
Signatories were required to clear all mines from their land within ten years, but Mozambique was given a five-year extension in 2009. In December, the country requested a further ten-month extension, which would allow it to complete the work by New Year's Eve 2014.
Tesfazghi Tewelde, manager of APOPO's mine clearance programme in Mozambique, says he now hopes the country will meet this latest deadline, since there is only an area the size of 1,400 football pitches left to clear.
He says Mozambique is in a strong position to complete the demining operation, thanks largely to the country's National Institute for Demining, which coordinates the efforts of several mine clearing organisations.
Mozambique experienced 16 years of civil war between 1977 and 1992. Although the fighting has stopped, the tens of thousands of landmines left behind continue to claim lives.
"Although the number of accidents drops as we get closer to the end, where there are landmines, the threat is real as people are still being killed or maimed," Tewelde says.
APOPO has discovered and safely destroyed nearly 2,500 landmines in the country as well as more than 14,000 pieces of unexploded ordnance, small arms and ammunition, and returned approximately 810 hectares to local communities.
"The target is not the number of landmines, rather it is to clear the contaminated area and give back to the people," Tewelde says. "Whether [landmines] are few or many, the threat is the same."
The giant rats undergo nine months of training, learning to sniff out the explosives in old landmines buried underground. The rats scratch at the ground to alert their human handlers to mines.
The rats are quick learners and "easy to work with," according to Alson Majanzota, a leader of one of APOPO's rat handling teams. He adds that they can check 200 square metres of land for mines in 30 minutes. A human with a metal detector could take up to three days to do the same job, he says.