The amazing, life-saving talents of African giant pouched rats

African giant pouched rat
© Aaron Gekoski / APOPO (used with permission)

These cat-sized rats are trained to find buried explosives, detect tuberculosis, and tackle wildlife trafficking.

Rats get a bad rap. Many people are creeped out and made squeamish by the creatures. But to be fair, the rat's association with the population-decimating Black Death hasn't done much to improve their reputation. Maybe there's some survival instinct going on there – I madly adore all creatures great and small, but when I see an urban rat in the wild, I can not contain an internal shudder so strong it threatens to detach my organs.

That said, rats are amazing. And rather than being only associated with wiping out half of Europe in the 14th century, there is plenty to celebrate about them ... which may explain why there is a World Rat Day (April 4).

So in honor of the mighty rat's good side, allow us to introduce the African giant pouched rat. Now I know that adjectives like "giant" and "pouched" may not be helping in my mission to encourage affection for rats, but the talents of this animal transcend its name.

Cricetomys gambianus is the size of a small domestic cat (I know, still not helping) but, as the San Diego Zoo describes them, they are "are intelligent, energetic, friendly, and pretty cute…if you squint one eye. And they have a nose that knows."

And it's that nose – combined with their intelligence – that makes them worthy of celebration.

One of the first things they have been trained to do with their noses is to detect landmines and leftover buried explosives. They have provided their explosive-sniffing prowess in seven countries, including Cambodia, Angola, and Mozambique, clearing the landscape and making it safe for people to inhabit once again. They do not get distracted by other debris in the field, and provide a safe and effective way to clear the land after a war.

And they make quick work of the task. One highly trained rat can scope out 2,200 square feet in about 20 minutes; a technician with a minesweeper would take up to four days to scout the same amount of space.

They have also been trained to detect tuberculosis (TB) in samples in hospitals. TB is one of the planet's deadliest infectious diseases. Confirming infection relies on expensive and complicated laboratory tests that require time and money. But the rats can detect the disease in sputum samples. Their ability to detect the presence of tuberculosis ranges as high as 86.6 percent; their ability to detect the absence of the germ is over 93 percent. In one study that compared the rats’ success to microscopy, the rats picked up 44 percent more positive cases, reports The New York Times.

All of this started around 20 years ago when a Belgian man named Bart Weetjens founded the organization APOPO, a non-profit dedicated to saving the world with rats. As a teen, Weetjens had trained his pet rats to find hidden objects for treats – and later wondered if they could be trained to find other things. He received a grant from the Belgium government, and the landmine project was born. Then came the TB detection. To date, APOPO's "Hero Rats" have helped clear over 106,000 landmines and identified over 12,000 TB-positive patients in Tanzania and Mozambique.

But why stop there? The San Diego Zoo reports that APOPO recently launched a pilot program with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to combat unlawful trafficking of exotic hardwoods as well as hoping to help tackle wildlife trafficking of the most exploited species on the planet: The poor pangolin.

“This is a case where Mother Nature has built a detection system that, coupled with modern technology, can save lives in places where cost-effective and efficient tools aren’t readily accessible,” says Weetjens. “Even after 20 years of working with them, I’m still in awe of what they can do.”

It may be that rats still have a ways to go before they stop inspiring involuntary shudders, but I for one have, maybe, just kind of (completely) fallen in love with them. So on this World Rat Day, I'm going to drink a toast to Cricetomys gambianus while I marvel at the amazing things the animal world has to teach us.

For more on these fabulous creatures, visit APOPO.

The amazing, life-saving talents of African giant pouched rats
These cat-sized rats are trained to find buried explosives, detect tuberculosis, and tackle wildlife trafficking.

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