University of Antwerp visits APOPO

Summer collaboration between UAntwerp and SUA 

Over 50 biology students from the University of Antwerp (UAntwerp) in Belgium and over 80 more from Wildlife Management at the Sokoine University of Agriculture (SUA) in Tanzania visited APOPO this summer as part of a Tropical Field Course organized by the two departments.

Photo © Cato

Twenty years ago a small group of researchers at UAntwerp and SUA joined forces and set off on an incredible journey of collaboration and innovation, driven by a sense of care and compassion for people around the world suffering from the threat of landmines. Following successful research at UAntwerp, APOPO was founded, and the headquarters were established in partnership with SUA. This collaboration continues till today.

The Tropical Field Course students were supervised and led by Proffessor Herwig Leirs who brings bachelor students to APOPO and SUA every two years to gain a unique experience with and learn more about tropical animals and ecosystems as well as Tanzanian culture. The groups visited the mine detection rat training minefield to observe their training routines and excercises.

© Anneleen Rutten
Photo © Anneleen Rutten

“We had a look at the different training stages of the African Giant Pouched Rats, who are used by APOPO to detect hidden landmines. The younger rats are trained on 60m2 boxes using tea eggs filled with TNT. The field has many boxes which exhibit different degrees of difficulty, ranging from boxes with tea eggs that are buried just under the surface, to 100m2 were real landmines are buried between 5 and 10 cm deep. Some of these advanced boxes are used for testing and the location of the tea eggs is unknown to both rat and trainers (allowing for so called blind tests)” said Jonas Torfs a Bachelor student of Biology at UAntwerp.

The students found it fascinating to see the accuracy and determination of the rats while looking for the TNT scented tea eggs. They observed several sessions, and not a single landmine or tea egg was missed by the animals.

“It is clear why these rats are perfect for the job: their sense of smell is flawless and they are easy to train. It was interesting to see clicker training used with rats. When they correctly find a landmine they hear a click and receive a banana or peanut reward. This keeps them motivated to keep looking.” described Jonas Torfs.

After seeing the different training stages and getting some background information about APOPO and the strong history of partnership between the universities, it was time for a small photoshoot with one of the rats. A nice ending of an interesting and inspiring visit.