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Bart Weetjens

APOPO HeroRat mine detection


Some heroes are rats

The wars of the last cen­tury have left behind 55 mil­lion land­mines and unex­ploded ord­nance. Land­mines kill 40 to 50 peo­ple every day and 1.3 mil­lion acres of land around the world are infested with mines. When war is over mine clear­ance begins. Mine clear­ance is usu­ally done man­u­ally with metal detec­tors or mine-detection dogs. This is a slow and expen­sive pro­ce­dure. It will take five hun­dred years to clear the world of all land­mines if we have no alternative.

Bart Weet­jens has a com­pletely dif­fer­ent approach to the land­mine detec­tion prob­lem. The com­plex tech­nol­ogy sur­prised him when he ana­lyzed the prob­lem of mine detec­tion in Africa in 1995. He set out to develop cheaper and more effi­cient tech­nolo­gies that rely on locally avail­able resources. In an old lab­o­ra­tory in Bel­gium he began train­ing giant pouched rats to detect explo­sives in minute amounts. He then moved to Tan­za­nia where he now runs a world-class train­ing facil­ity in Moro­goro and works with locals. Thanks to his work coun­tries can shift from being depen­dent on for­eign exper­tise for the mine clear­ance process to hav­ing the power to con­trol it themselves.

The African giant pouched rat is wide­spread in the region and lives up to eight years in cap­tiv­ity. Being a light­weight it enables them to nav­i­gate through mine­fields with­out det­o­nat­ing active land­mines. Before being offi­cially allowed to work as mine detec­tors, the rats have to pass a licens­ing test. If they detect all the hid­den mines on blinded boxes, they obtain a license for half a year of oper­a­tional work. The rats that pass the train­ing become offi­cial HeroRATS.

Weet­jens has applied a sim­i­lar approach to other fields. His rats also diag­nose tuber­cu­lo­sis in hos­pi­tals now.

Bart Weet­jes is a prod­uct devel­oper and indus­trial designer. In 1995 he ini­ti­ated the APOPO project by analy­sis of land­mine detec­tion tech­nolo­gies. He became man­ag­ing direc­tor in 1997 and has done research and devel­op­ment of appro­pri­ate land­mine detec­tion tech­nol­ogy since, using trained rats as biosen­sors. In 2007, the World Eco­nomic Forum elected Bart Weet­jens Social Entre­pre­neur of the Year.

www.apopo.org & www.herorat.org