Frequently asked questions
What does APOPO mean?
APOPO is an acronym from Dutch which stands for Anti-Persoonsmijnen Ontmijnende Product Ontwikkeling, or in English, Anti-Personnel Landmines Detection Product Development.
What kind of organization is APOPO and what does it do?
APOPO is a non-profit organization that researches, develops and implements detection rats technology for humanitarian purposes such as clearing landmines and detecting tuberculosis. APOPO is a Belgian NGO, with headquarters in Tanzania and operations in Mozambique, Angola and Cambodia. APOPO trains rats to save lives. Our mission is to develop detection rats technology to provide solutions for global problems and inspire positive social change.
When was APOPO created?
The Belgian Directorate for International Co-operation (DGIS) provided the initial financial support to develop the concept in November 1997. APOPO vzw was registered under the Belgian law as a non-commercial agency, and started its first research in early 1998. Later, APOPO became a registered Belgian NGO.
Who came up with the idea?
It was Bart Weetjens, our founder, who came up with the idea. Bart kept pet rats as a child. During his studies, he was carrying out an analysis of the landmine problem in Sub Saharan Africa and realized that landmine clearance was dangerous and costly. He had recently come across an article about gerbils and their ability to detect explosives in lab conditions, and when he thought back to the sense of smell of his pet rats, and their trainability, he put two and two together et voilà. He consulted with Professor Ron Verhagen, a rodent expert at the University of Antwerp, who recommended the giant African pouched rat (Cricetomys gambianus) because of its long lifespan and adaptation to the harsh conditions in Africa.
Where do you work?
APOPO has its HQ in Tanzania, with a breeding- and training center and a TB research and detection center. There is a Mine Action- and a TB program in Mozambique and we have Mine Detection Rats deployed in Angola since 2014. In Cambodia, APOPO is surveying huge areas of land, accurately determining the extend of mine contamination. This approach was used in Thailand as well. APOPO was also working in Vietnam and Lao PDR where we were detecting Unexploded Ordnances, as well as helping the national authorities to build capacity to handle their explosive remnants of war (ERW) problem.
How many rats do you have?
In March 2015 we had 47 rats in various stages of training for landmine detection and 1 in training to become a TB detection rat. The TB-center in Morogoro had 31 HeroRATs at work. At our headquarters in Morogoro, 26 rats were involved in the breeding program. In Angola, we had 42 HeroRATs operational and 20 rats were working in landmine detection operations in Mozambique. In the TB-center in Maputo, there were 9 rats working.
Is APOPO planning to start working in other countries?
We receive regular enquiries from individuals, commercial companies, and civil society from many countries, asking us how to get the rats there to help with their landmine or tuberculosis problem. The simple answer is funding. Before we can start work, we first need to open an office in the country and then apply to be registered as an NGO by its government. Once achieved, we then begin recruiting and training local staff importing equipment and machines, and getting the rats there.
As for our mine action program, we undergo a testing and accreditation process when training is completed. Thereby every deminer, machine and rat are tested to ensure they are able to work to a high standard. We are then issued with an accreditation license and it is only then that we are able to start the work of detecting and clearing landmines. This process can be quite costly due to the time the bureaucracy takes and the need to maintain a presence in the country throughout.
Are the rats resistant to tropical diseases?
African giant pouched rats are endemic to sub-Saharan Africa, they are used to the tropical climate and are resilient to many tropical diseases. Veterinary care requirements are therefore relatively small. Routine care includes daily observations of individual animals, weekly health reports and regular prevention treatments for parasites.
What do the HeroRATs eat?
During the week, trained rats live on a reward diet that consists mainly of bananas and peanuts. On the weekend, they eat a balanced diet of grains, maize, nuts, vegetables, fruits, fish and sometimes insects. This is also the permanent diet for the breeding rats, but during weekdays they get additional fruits and vegetables (e.g. Monday tomatoes and eggplant, Tuesday sweet potatoes and watermelon, etc).
Where do you get the rats?
APOPO has a breeding program which supplies rats 'as needed' for the training, research and detection programs currently underway. We have breeding couples and successfully trained rats that are taking a 'work holiday' also participate in our breeding program. Sometimes additional wild rats are introduced into the breeding program (to scale up productivity). In the early days we attempted to use wild-caught rats, but it became clear very quickly that it was not going to work. The rats were aggressive and just could not be handled. Now we breed the rats and begin handling them and exposing them to all kinds of objects, sounds, and smells as soon as they open their eyes, at about four weeks of age. When the rats are raised in constant contact with people, they are very easy to handle and train.
How are the rats kept?
The HeroRATs in training share kennels with their siblings. The kennels are cleaned regularly and the rats have their own caretaking staff who make sure they are fed, loved, have access to drinking water, and clean living quarters. As other captive-born rats, the HeroRATs enjoy attention, including being petted and taken out for playtime. APOPO has several outside pens where the rats can play and get used to an outside environment. The breeding enclosures are designed to simulate the native habitat of the rats, complete with dirt to make tunnels and create living chambers in.
How does the routine care of the rats look like?
Routine care includes daily observations of individual animals, weekly health inspection and reports and regular prevention treatments for parasites. Every two weeks a vet visits the training and breeding facility to check on the animals. The rats eat a well-balanced diet and we make sure that they have plenty of time to relax and play in between the training and work sessions.
What happens to old rats that aren't working anymore?
We have been operating in TB and demining for long enough now that some of our rats have reached retirement age, which is typically between 7 and 8 years of age. We allow them to work as long as they are performing well, still feel like working and pass weekly health checks. We notice that the rats are generally enthusiastic to get to work but when they are growing old, some simply don’t feel like getting out of their cage to work anymore. If that happens or when a rat’s performance has declined or it is not healthy enough to continue working, the rat is retired to its home cage. When they are retired to their cages, they receive a healthy diet, are regularly taken out to play and exercise, and continue to receive weekly health checks. If a rat is clearly suffering in its old age or from an untreatable disease, it is humanely euthanized.
Do you use wood shavings in the rats’ cages and is this safe?
The bedding we use in the cages is composed of a variety of non-aromatic hardwoods, no softwoods and definitely no pine and cedar (those are the ones that are known to be dangerous). The rats also have an excellent health record, and respiratory problems are basically nonexistent, so we are confident that the bedding is safe.
Why do some of the HeroRATs have their ears clipped?
The rats are nocturnal and susceptible to developing skin cancer on their ears. We train the rats very early in the morning and stop before the heat of the day can affect them, but they sometimes develop cancer despite our attempts to prevent it. If they do start to develop skin cancer, we apply a salve to reduce any itching or discomfort, but if the problem becomes too serious we take them to the vet where the affected areas are surgically removed under local anesthesia.
Do animals sometimes get hurt or killed during the mine action job?
Demining is a dangerous job and, sadly, human deminers are sometimes injured or killed. The rats have a significant advantage over their human demining partners in that a pressure-activated antipersonnel landmine typically requires about five kilograms of pressure to be activated. Our heaviest operational male rats do not exceed 1.5 kilograms and are, therefore, in no danger of activating this type of landmine. However, working around landmines is dangerous work for anyone involved. Fortunately, no rats have been injured or killed in the minefield to date.
What does a typical day at APOPO in Tanzania look like?
Our rats work Monday through Friday and play and rest on weekends. During the week, landmine-detection training at the field occurs in the mornings between 7 am and 9 am. During these 2 hours, all rats take short training sessions of about 15 to 25 minutes. After finishing their session, they wait in their transportation cage in the shadow and with plenty of water. Afterward the trainers return to the office for a tea break. From 9:30 am to noon, trainers work in short sessions with Mine Detection rats and TB-detection rats in the respective centers. They also train with the young rats that are just beginning their socialization and early stage training. Lunch takes place from noon to 1 pm and trainers wrap up their training and prepare for the next day's work from 1 pm to 2:30 pm.
What happens to rats that fail the training?
Fortunately, very few rats fail to progress through training, but it does happen. We are dedicated to helping people and saving lives with the rats, so if one is lagging behind too much, rather than spending an exorbitant amount of time and resources on a rat that is probably not going to be useful operationally, we give the rat an early retirement (cared for in their living cage).
How are the rats trained?
APOPO trains the rats through operant conditioning, using a combination of a click sound and food rewarding. Training starts at the age of 5-6 weeks, with socialization. The young rats are weaned from their mothers and APOPO's trainers begin socializing them to the sights, sounds, and textures of the human world. Once our rats are six weeks old, click training begins, where we teach the rats to associate a click sound with a food reward – usually banana or peanuts. After two weeks at this stage, the rats learn that click means food, and are now ready to be trained on a target scent. After these steps, our rats specialize in a target scent in either TNT for detecting landmines or TB for detecting TB in human sputum samples. After odor imprint, the complexity of their tasks gradually increases until they reach the final training stage where they have to do a blind test in order to be accredited.
What are the rats’ training hours?
Normally, the rats are trained about half an hour per day, five days per week. During the weekend, they relax and can feast on an extensive varied meal.
What is the cost of training one of these rats?
An exact cost calculation of the rodent mine detection technology will only be possible after relevant operational field experience over a period of time. However, at present we estimate that 5 euro per month covers basic food, nutrition, daily care, housing and healthcare for one rat. If you factor in all the variables that go into training, evaluation, and care, it costs an average of 6,000 euro to fully train one detection rat.
HeroRATs and their trainers
Are there any cultural problems with handling rats?
In APOPO’s experience, all staff members who have been employed to train the animals (mostly Tanzanians) have picked up the job quickly. There have been no cases of fear among the trainers or cases of mistreating or rough handling of the rats, behavior that could initiate fear in them. In general, we observe quite gentle handling and respectful interaction with the animals.
Do the trainers get attached to particular rats?
Each rat is assigned to only one trainer or a pair of trainers, so they get to know the animals very well. The rats become familiar with the trainers and they get attached to them, but all want their rats to pass their final test and get sent to an operational site, so they can save lives.
What kind of rat is trained to sniff out mines and disease?
Rodents are the biggest order of mammals, with more than 2,000 species. Among these, APOPO selected the African giant pouched rat or Cricetomys gambianus for mine and TB detection. Though most rats could qualify in terms of sensitivity and intelligence, the Cricetomys has inherent advantages for the detection tasks. African giant pouched rats are: species with a very well developed olfactory capacity, they are a widespread indigenous species, adapted to the local environment, they are able to live up to eight years in captivity, they are relatively large, making them easier to work with and observe, they are calm, docile, and easy to tame and they are cheap to source, feed, breed and maintain.
What sort of weight and length range are the HeroRATs?
The typical healthy weight range for a mature male rat is between 1075g and 1275g and for a female rat between 957g and 1157g. Their average body length is 30-40 cm, excluding the tail of 40 cm. Males are somewhat larger.
How acute is the rats’ sense of smell?
The rats have a very sensitive sense of smell. In the wild, rats can communicate over large distances using olfactory cues – and the rat's nose is constantly active and moving. With its rather poor vision, the Cricetomys depends largely on its sense of smell. The rats can smell TNT in low concentrations and even when it's buried under the ground (up to 15-20 cm). They can also detect the odour from a distance of about 1 meter. Apart from that, our trained rats are not distracted by other objects or odours as they specifically look for TNT/TB while ignoring other contamination.
How would you describe the rats’ nature?
The African giant pouched rats are sociable, clean and intelligent animals and it is very satisfying to see how they respond to our training methods and how hard they work. Many people still think of rats as dirty and stupid animals but they are actually very smart and likeable. The rats all have unique personalities. Some are very energetic, constantly moving and running about, while others are more relaxed. A few of the rats are very vocal, happily squeaking when they are about to be fed, while they are being handled, and sometimes while they are working. The different personality traits rarely prevent a rat from being trained to become a good sniffer rat, but some traits are better suited for certain types work. For example, a strong and energetic rat can usually search a large area of ground for landmines very quickly, but the rat may be more difficult to handle because it will not hold still.
Can different people handle one rat?
An important advantage of the rats is their relative independence from a personal handler. Therefore a handler does not necessarily have to follow his own animals to the demining operations. Generally, most rats remain with the same trainer, but show no significant difference in performance when taken over by somebody else in the absence of the trainer. We make sure all new handlers are briefed extensively on the specific behavior of individual animals.
Do the trainers get a specific training?
All new trainers get an extensive practical training and we also conduct refresher and ongoing trainings, reviewing fundamental topics and introducing new methods and strategies. All trainers are well informed and our supervisors make sure they handle the rats correctly to avoid startling or any physical harm.
Why was/is there such a big need for an organization as APOPO in Mine Action?
Every year, landmines maim or kill thousands of people - mostly innocent and defenseless civilians. According to the landmine monitor, there was still a global average of 9 casualties per day in 2013, including many women and children (ICBL, 2014). Mines obstruct economic development and reconstruction, prevent access to basic needs and services as water and education, inhibit the repatriation of refugees and internally displaced persons, and have other severe consequences that last for years after emplacement. Detection of landmines is however a complicated, dangerous, costly, and time-consuming process and many developing countries lack the resources to properly commit to the task. Meanwhile the affected communities have little choice but to live on or nearby landmine contaminated land. APOPO provides a sustainable, locally sourced and cost-effective solution for landmine detection. All of APOPO's operations are in limited resources settings in countries which otherwise remain dependent on expensive imported know-how. APOPO trains local communities on its Detection Rat Technology, empowering them to tackle mine detection tasks more independently and at lower costs.
How effective are the Mine Detection HeroRATs?
Mine detection rats can quickly and accurately detect landmines, significantly speeding up mine clearance efforts and allowing communities to once again use their land productively. The great advantage of rats is that they are fast, thus cheap, to deploy because they only react to the scent of explosive, whereas deminers need to investigate every alert their metal detectors make, be it scrap metal, an old coin, or an actual landmine. APOPO's Mine-Detection rats can search around 200 square meters in 20 minutes. This would take 25 operational hours using metal detectors. They can detect both metal and plastic-cased landmines, making them highly efficient landmine detectors.
Once the Mine Detection Rats indicate the location of a landmine, how do you remove or destroy it?
The locations that are indicated by the rats, by scratching on the flour, are followed up by our manual demining team, who detects and destroys the mines. A deminer first locates the mine and exposes it to a level where it can be clearly identified. The exact location is clearly marked with warning signs, and at the end of the day, the supervisor will come back to it and lay a demolition charge next to it. Then they stand off to a safe distance and detonate the explosive, which destroys the mine.
What are landmines?
A landmine is defined by the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty as "a munition designed to be placed under, on or near the ground or other surface area and to be exploded by the presence, proximity or contact of a person or a vehicle." Landmines are generally divided into two main groups – anti-personnel and anti-tank mines. The former are designed to explode when a person steps on them or disturbs them. The latter are intended to explode when at least 200 kilograms of pressure is applied—when a car, jeep, truck or tank drives over them for example.
What are UXO's?
UXO stands for unexploded ordnance and refers to weapons that for some reason failed to detonate as intended and can still explode even decades later. Ordnances are explosive weapons such as bombs, rockets, missiles, mortars and grenades.
What are cluster munitions?
Cluster munitions are weapons that can be dropped from the air by planes or fired from the ground. They open in mid-air and release numerous explosive bomblets, or submunitions, over a wide area. Many explode immediately but most don’t.
What are ERW's?
Explosive remnants of war (ERW) are explosive munitions left behind after a conflict has ended. They include unexploded artillery shells, grenades, mortars, rockets, air-dropped bombs, and cluster munitions.
How do landmines work and how are they used?
There are different types of injuries caused by landmines, depending on the type of mine:
- Blast landmines are pressure-activated and generally produce injuries from the explosive detonating;
- Fragmentation landmines contain shrapnel, which is fired out into victims when the mine detonates;
- Bounding fragmentation landmines jump out of the ground to waist level when activated and fire thousands of deadly fragments, in some cases to a radius of around 100 metres.
- Anti-vehicle or anti-tank (AT) landmines are larger and take greater pressure to activate (do not fall under the land mine ban treaty). Rip through vehicles and cause lethal injury to drivers and passengers.
Why was/is there such a big need for an organization as APOPO in TB detection?
Mycobacterium tuberculosis (TB) ranks as the leading cause of death from an infectious disease worldwide, alongside the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). There are approximately 9 million new cases of TB per year and 1.5 million people died from TB in 2014. In many developing countries, TB is still detected through microscopy. Although this method can be very precise it's also slow and between 20-80% of positives can be missed, depending on the limited resources available and the skills of the technician. APOPO's detection rats technology is a fast, accurate and cost-effective screening tool to accelerate effective tuberculosis (TB) control. Constrained resources are a prevalent issue in regions that tend to have a high TB burden and APOPO relieves these countries of their dependence on the expensive and often unavailable TB diagnostics. The animals' resilience and versatility help to overcome the lack of resources as they are able to adapt and work in any environment under a vast array of conditions. By engaging scent detection technology to identify TB in human sputum samples, APOPO saves lives and enables people to stay productive and support their households, a highly important factor given the poverty levels in Mozambique and Tanzania. Moreover, the Detection Rats Technology empowers local communities to tackle dangerous, expensive and expert dependent detection tasks more independently, while creating local expertise to curb global humanitarian detection problems.
How effective are the TB Detection HeroRATs?
APOPO's tuberculosis detection rats are at least as accurate as conventional routine microscopy, but much faster. A tuberculosis detection rat screens a hundred samples in 20 minutes, this would take a lab technician four days. Thereby APOPO has managed to increase the TB case detection rate of the collaborating TB clinics by an average of 40%.
What exactly do the rats detect when they search for TB?
In order to know what exactly the rats smell, we still need to do a lot of basic research. But, our experience in the landmine detection and a PhD work by one of our staff suggests that the detection rats smell a bouquet of odor which is specific for Mycobacterium tuberculosis. This odor comprises of a specific blend of volatile organic compounds which the rats can recognize.
Do you anticipate the rats will ever be the main diagnostic tool, rather than a second line one?
At the moment, the detection rats technology is not endorsed yet by the World Health Organization, and therefore National Tuberculosis Programs have not adapted our technology in their TB diagnostic guidelines. Currently, the rats are an excellent add-on test to sputum smear microscopy: at a relatively low cost we increase the case detection of new TB patients with over 40% in collaborating health clinics. Because of the speed and the low cost of the detection rats, this technology has great potential to be the initial screening test when actively screening populations at high risk of TB. We aim to evaluate the performance of the detection rats as a screening test in the near future.
What are the main challenges in the traditional method of diagnosing TB?
In many developing countries, TB is still detected through microscopy. Although this method can be very precise, (when a sample is diagnosed as “TB positive” by microscopy, it is almost always a true positive) it can also be slow and between 20-80% of positives can be missed, depending on the limited resources available and the skills of the technician. Constrained resources are a prevalent issue in regions that tend to have a high TB burden. Every year, 9 million people globally are infected with tuberculosis (TB) yet about 3 million of those are missed and consequently don’t receive the care they need. Most of the 3 million missed cases of TB are in sub Saharan Africa because of inadequate health systems that are often unable to correctly diagnose TB in their clinics. Furthermore, the high HIV epidemic has aggravated the TB situation in this region, as diagnosing TB among HIV positive individuals is very difficult with microscopy. APOPO’s successful TB program is a step towards addressing the millions of TB cases that go undetected and can lead to death, in Africa and throughout the world.
Research and development
Are there any future projects the HeroRATs will be involved with?
We have investigated and plan on continuing investigation of other applications where the rats can put their noses to work for a good cause. Some of the recent applications that we have looked into include detection of Salmonella, detection of contraband tobacco, and location of victims in collapsed structures. There are a lot of potential scent-detection applications where the rats might be of benefit. Here are a few categories (with some examples) that we are aware of: medical (cancer, diabetes), environmental (pipeline corrosion, wood mold, microbial growth in buildings), contaminated food/water (salmonella, legionella, fungus), forensics (blood, gunshot residue), customs (tobacco, narcotics, explosives), and agricultural (termites, screwworms, weevils). We are not pursuing all of these applications, but we may explore some of them in the future if it looks like the rats would be a low cost, low tech solution.
Does APOPO offer internship or volunteering opportunities?
In general we we don't offer internships or volunteer positions because the training and research schedule keeps us so busy. All APOPO's activities are part of a research program that allows us to permanently improve what we do and to develop new applications/methodologies. We feel we wouldn't be able to support interns or volunteers in a way that would be satisfactory to both staff and volunteers. That being said, occasionaly we have (PhD) students or volunteers helping us with specific parts of research or supporting us with specific tasks as SEO optimization. Feel free to let fill in the online form on our career page (https://www.apopo.org/en/contact/stay-in-touch/careers).
How do I keep up-to-date?
To keep up-to-date with all our progress, you can subscribe to our e-newsletter at our website, or connect with us on Facebook or Twitter for regular updates. If you have any additional questions, you can always use the contact form or send us an email.
I want to send a HeroRAT adoption as a gift, how can I do that?
Please visit our adoption page, fill in the amount you’d like to contribute (the minimum amount for an adoption is 5€/7$ per month), add your email address, your first name and last name and chose a name for the HeroRAT. Then tick the 'gift option' box underneath the ‘confirm contribution button’ and input the gift recipient's information. The gift recipient will receive the full package of adopting a HeroRAT and a notification of who sent the gift. The person who gave the adoption will also receive occasional updates about the HeroRATs' training and development as well as the impact of the donation, and APOPO news on myapopo.org and/or via email, based on your email preferences.
What do I receive for my adoption?
When you adopt a HeroRat through myapopo you will:
- Be able to name and rename your avatar rat anytime you would like
- Receive a HeroRAT Adoption Certificate showing your name and the name you chose for your avatar rat. Gain exclusive access to a secure and personalized myapopo.org wall showing the impact and achievements based of our rats - based on the actual impact of our HeroRATs in an operational setting such as:
- Pictures, information and updates about the rat's development and activities
- Fun and unique short stories along with a mix of updates including program news and other exciting events
- Be able to share links and the impact of your support and the rat’s accomplishments on Facebook
- Earn fun HeroRAT avatars and achievement badges as well as photos of activities in the field
- Make choices throughout the program: for example a new adopter can choose after the 2.5 month baby rat phase, that his/her avatar rat become a landmine detection rat or tuberculosis detection rat
- Receive exclusive content and updates through myapopo.org over time
How much does adopting a rat cost?
The cost of adopting a HeroRAT is 5 euro/7 dollars per month or 60 euro/84 dollars per year. These can be completed in two ways:
- A monthly subscription payment of at least 5 euro/ 7 dollars per month, which does not expire until cancelled by the adopter.
- An annual subscription payment of at least 60 euro/ 84 dollars per year, which does not expire until cancelled by the adopter
How do I subscribe for an annual adoption payment?
At the right side of our adoption page, you can find a 'make it annual' button. Click on the button and the system will automatically change any monthly amount to the equivalent annual amount (see contribution box). Then fill in email address, first name and last name. You can also name your HeroRAT. Click on 'confirm contribution' and you’ll be referred to the PayPal website. If your payment is proceeded, you will receive a confirmation email and soon after you will get all login information for you Myapopo wall.
Where can I find my adoption certificate?
Our first welcome message contains a link to your adoption certificate. You can also find the certificate on your Myapopo page after login. Click on 'my HeroRAT' at the top left of the page and choose 'download adoption certificate'.
How do I cancel my subscription?
Although the HeroRATs will miss you, you are able to cancel at any time by logging in to your PayPal account and stopping the subscription. Please note that APOPO cannot cancel the adoption for you – only the PayPal account holder has the authority to cancel the payments.
- Log in to your PayPal account.
- Click "History" under "My Account" at the top of the page.
- Start a search and change the dates so you start the search from the date before you started your subscription.
- Use the filter drop down to select "subscriptions".
- Click "Details" or the name of subscription you wish to cancel.
- Click "Cancel Subscription". This button appears at the bottom of the page.
- Confirm the choice by clicking "Cancel Subscription" as requested.
Please find more information on the PayPal's Help Center Website
If I cancel my annual subscription, will I automatically be removed from myapopo.org?
Adopters who subscribe to an annual payment, but are not sure if they would like their payment to be automatically renewed after the first year, may cancel any time via their PayPal account. Because they have paid for one full years’ adoption, they will continue to receive their rat’s progress reports for the remainder of the year after cancellation.
If I adopt two baby rats, will I receive different stories?
The training process of every baby rat is the same, but then you can choose to send your rat to become a mine detection rat or a tuberculosis detection rat, which receive different stories. Further, the stories are refreshed with the latest updates, news, and training procedures periodically.