Sunday 25th of October 2020

superhero rats


Landmines - brutal and indiscriminate weapons - are depressingly common in the developing world. Can the highly developed sense of smell of rats help to clear this scourge?

We rattled along the potholed dirt road, a thick plume of red earth spraying out behind us.

Four hours from the Mozambican capital, Maputo, we arrived in the small, dusty town of Chokwe. The reality of where I was going was only just sinking in. We were headed for the largest remaining minefield in Mozambique.

We were travelling with Apopo, a social enterprise which has come up with a unique way of clearing mines - rats.

Hero Rats

Drawing on their remarkable sense of smell, Apopo have found a way to train rats to sniff out the TNT in mines. We'd already see them being trained in Tanzania. Now it was time to see them at work in Mozambique.

One of the biggest hindrances to development in rural Mozambique is the presence, or even just the suspected presence, of a mine.


remnants of el-Alamein...

from al Jazeera

In an area 100 kilometer west of Alexandria in northern Egypt lies the famous region of el-Alamein – scene of a mighty battle between the UK and its allies fighting German and Italian forces for control of North Africa in 1942.

The battle marked a turning point in the war: Montgomery's Desert Rats and his allies broke through German lines, pushing Rommel's forces back to Tunisia, taking control of the Suez canal, and gaining access to the Middle Eastern oil fields.

With no natural barriers in the desert, Rommel ordered half a million mines to be laid around the coastal town, while the British reportedly put down even more.

Santo Pelliccia, an Italian WWII veteran says:"There was an engineers battalion under Major Dominioni. They knew where the mines were, and they came with us on patrol to cross the frontline. We walked in single file and stepped slowly, checking the ground. We had to identify the mines, especially the anti-personnel ones. If you step on an anti-tank mine nothing will happen, but not the other kind."

Gino Sermidi, another Italian veteran remembers: "I was on patrol with two men. We used a compass to avoid the enemy mines. Every now and then in the night we would occasionally hear a landmine explode and someone scream. On the way back to our camp, we used the same method to avoid the mines."

More than 65 years after the battle, the area remains riddled with debris from the hostilities – including an estimated 17 million landmines.

The area is home to Bedouin nomads and many local villagers and farmers – along with their children – are hurt and sometimes killed when they come across the bombs, tank shells and landmines abandoned in the shifting dunes.

"The war ended, prisoners were taken, others were dead and the mines were left. Mines were buried in the ground.

"They left us with nothing but mines. In the trenches you can find thousands of mines. If you touch them, they'll explode. We came back and knew nothing. There were mines everywhere," Abd el-Rassoul Awad, the guard of el-Alamein's Italian cementary, says.


May be they need more "rats"... see toon and story above...

the dogs of war...

A Bin Laden Hunter on Four Legs

The identities of all 80 members of the Navy Seal team who thundered into Abbottabad, Pakistan, and killed Osama bin Laden are the subject of intense speculation, but perhaps none more so than the only member with four legs.

Little is known about what may be the nation’s most courageous dog. Even its breed is the subject of intense interest, although it was likely a German shepherd or a Belgian Malinois, according to military sources. But its use in the crucial raid reflects the military’s growing dependence on dogs in wars in which improvised explosive devices have caused two-thirds of all casualties. Dogs have proven far better than people or machines at quickly finding bombs.

Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of United States forces in Afghanistan, said last year that the military needed more dogs. “The capability they bring to the fight cannot be replicated by man or machine,” he said. “By all measures of performance, their yield outperforms any asset we have in our inventory.”

Maj. William Roberts, commander of the Defense Department’s Military Working Dog Center at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, said the dog on the raid could have served a variety of functions. First, the dog could have quickly checked the compound for explosives and even sniffed the handle of the door to the house to see if it was booby-trapped.

And given that Saddam Hussein was found hiding in a narrow, dark hole beneath a two-room mud shack in Iraq, the Seal team might have brought the dog in case Bin Laden had built into his compound a hidden room, hole or other hiding place.

“Dogs are very good at detecting people inside of a building,” Major Roberts said.

Another use might have been to catch anyone escaping the compound in the first moments of the raid. A German shepherd or Belgian Malinois runs twice as fast as a human. Anyone who made it out of the compound in the first seconds of the raid could have been tracked down relatively quickly by the dog.

Tech Sgt. Kelly A. Mylott, the kennel master at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, said that dogs are ideal for getting someone who is running away without having to shoot them. “When the dogs go after a suspect, they’re trained to bite and hold them,” Sergeant Mylott said.


see toon at top...

rather than follow the piper, we followed the rats...


Magawa the mine-detecting rat wins PDSA Gold Medal


An African giant pouched rat has been awarded a prestigious gold medal for his work detecting land mines. 

Magawa has sniffed out 39 landmines and 28 unexploded munitions in his career.

The UK veterinary charity PDSA has presented him with its Gold Medal for "life-saving devotion to duty, in the location and clearance of deadly landmines in Cambodia".

There are thought to be up to six million landmines in the southeast Asian country.

PDSA's Gold Medal is inscribed with the words "For animal gallantry or devotion to duty". Of the 30 animal recipients of the award, Magawa is the first rat.

The seven-year-old rodent was trained by the Belgium-registered charity Apopo, which is based in Tanzania and has been raising the animals - known as HeroRATs - to detect landmines and tuberculosis since the 1990s. The animals are certified after a year of training.

"To receive this medal is really an honour for us," Apopo chief executive Christophe Cox told the Press Association news agency. "But also it is big for the people in Cambodia, and all the people around the world who are suffering from landmines."

On Friday PDSA will broadcast the award ceremony for Magawa on its website.

According to Apopo, Magawa - born and raised in Tanzania - weights 1.2kg (2.6lb) and is 70cm (28in) long. While that is far larger than many other rat species, Magawa is still small enough and light enough that he does not trigger mines if he walks over them.

The rats are trained to detect a chemical compound within the explosives, meaning they ignore scrap metal and can search for mines more quickly. Once they find an explosive, they scratch the top to alert their human co-workers.

Magawa is capable of searching a field the size of a tennis court in just 20 minutes - something Apopo says would take a person with a metal detector between one and four days.


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