For three years during World War II, Libya and Egypt were involved in a series of battles known as the North African campaigns. Following Italy's declaration of war on Great Britain and France, both Axis and Allied forces had interests in colonizing Africa. So, when the British Army's Royal Tank Regiment crossed the Libyan/Egyptian border in 1940, Italy launched a counteroffensive into Egypt. For the next three years, German, Italian, French and British forces battled for control of North Africa before the Allied powers finally forced an Axis surrender in Tunisia.
During this time, each side employed land-mines intended to thwart the opposition. It is estimated that 80,000 mines were laid at the Buerat Line in Libya alone. The United Nations puts the number at somewhere around 19.7 million mines along Western Egypt. Although WWII has long ended, the mines are still operational and prone to detonation.
Sadly, diplomatic engagements between former Axis and Allied countries at the end of the war was never properly unified and the North African government was left holding the bill for the removal of the land mines. Today, the land mines kill thousands of civilians each year.
Bart Weetjens, a Dutch project designer working in Tanzania, came up with a brilliantly simple and affordable solution to detect the mines: mine-sniffing rats.
Weetjens founded Anti-Persoonsmijnen Ontmijnende Product Ontwikkeling, or APOPO for short, a Dutch foundation that trains rats for mine detection.
The rats are small enough that they don't set off the mines, but large enough to be spotted when they're alerting their handlers to the presence of mines.
The rats are responding to the smell of TNT. The smell is very faint since the land mines are buried so far underground, but the rats' sharp sense of smell easily detects it, as well as other small arms and ammunition abandoned in the African landscape.
The rats can clear 200 square meters in just 20 minutes. Human personnel with metal detectors would take up to 5 days to clear an area that size.
Nine civilian casualties per day is the global average for undetonated land mines. But, in the last 15 years, Weetjen's trained rats have found over 9,000 buried mines across Tanzania and Mozambique.
This rat gets a sweet banana treat to say thanks for his lifesaving work.
The rats only work with one or two handlers in their lifetime, allowing them to form an emotional bond with their humans.
The rats work Monday through Friday for a few short hours and spend the weekend relaxing with their human caretakers.
After four to five years of service, the rats have a retirement program through APOPO that rewards them with a happy, healthy rat retirement for their years of service.
To find out more about the rats and APOPO's land-mine program, visit them here.