Rats! Deliverers of disease and scaring people on to chairs and tables for eternity. But now, we are beginning to realise their full potential to enhance our lives. Most of the headlines we see about rats are scary and provocative, aimed to enhance our fear. More recently, they have been found a useful in the security and health sectors in Africa.
The nose of a rat is its greatest attribute. They can not only smell normal scents, they can detect the presence of chemicals that indicate a change in atmosphere or emotion. Rats can be trained, just like dogs, to behave in a certain way when they detect a particular chemical.
Due to their sense of smell and their size, rats have been ideal in searching for and alerting their handlers over the presence of landmines by Belgian NGO APOPO. Most of the mines are a hidden scar caused by the many wars fought on African soil. In 2014, a global total of 3,678 casualties from landmine explosions were reported. According to this article, the African giant pouched rat, (which is the size of a cat!) are better than dogs in their search for landmines. Not only are they easier to transport than dogs, they are light enough not to set off the land mines as they walk over them. Training dogs to do the same work is expensive, especially as the life expectancy of a landmine finding dog is very short! The rats are trained how to be around people from an early age and to expect food after the sound of a click. They are then attached to a harness and taught to walk on a rope grid. One rat is able to search 200 square metres of land in 20 minutes. A human would take four days to search the same area.
But it is not just landmines that rats are putting their noses to. Their extraordinary smelling power has been put to use sniffing out tuberculoses. APOPO have employed 42 rats to sniff out TB in samples in Africa. In 2014, or 1.1 million TB deaths, Africa had 450,000, by far the biggest share. As mentioned previously, there are often long delays in diagnosis and the rats help speed that up for potential TB patients. They can sniff and detect TB not only more accurately than technicians (because they can detect a much smaller concentration of TV), but at incredible speeds; 100 samples in 20 minutes, which is 4 days work for a technician. When a rat identifies TB it is rewarded with a peanut-banana mixture! Not a bad salary for a rat.
If rats are able to smell so acutely, maybe they can also be used to detect other diseases. There are dogs that are able to detect the onset of an epileptic fit, or cancer. In my experience, there were many inexplicable and needless deaths in Africa, that, with better diagnosis would not have occurred. Dogs have also recently been helping take on ivory smugglers in Tanzania. If rats noses are comparable or even more sensitive to dogs, then maybe there are many other uses for them in Africa. Maybe soon we will see more rats as pets across the continent, making the lives of their owners easier! According to this list, elephants have an even better sense of smell than rats! Is it time to hire some elephants to do some sniffing?
Have you heard of any other uses for Rats? (Not bush meat on the BBQ!) Please let me know by commenting, and also please like the blog (it is just a quick click!) Or Tweet me @inventiveafrica.