Even in the hungriest countries, fear of landmines left behind after nasty guerrilla conflicts causes much valuable farmland to be abandoned, just because the acreage cannot be cleared of hidden dangers in a cost-effective manner. National governments and international bureaus have tried. They hire men in bomb-suits to painstakingly sweep land with handheld metal detectors. Each metallic strike must be carefully dug up to find out if it’s a booby trap or a bobby pin. A civil servant can clear about a bedroom-size plot per day using that method. Meanwhile buried explosives continue to maim innocent people every year.
As a boy, Bart Weetjens kept rats as pets. As an adult, he became interested in their powerful scent-detection abilities, and how that might be put to good use for humanity. He founded a charity that trains rats to detect TNT and raises money to deploy the animals to minefields across the globe. His so-called Hero Rats don’t false-alert on bobby pins, shell casings, or empty sardine cans—they zero in
solely on high explosives. As a result, a rat and its handler can clear 20 bedroom-size plots of land per day rather than just one. And ordinary people can go to websites like GlobalGiving.org to “adopt” a Hero Rat for an $84 annual donation. (The rats get paid in bananas and peanuts.)
The rats have also been trained to detect tuberculosis in human sputum by scent. This is much faster, cheaper, and (in developing nations) more accurate than traditional microscope diagnoses. This may open new avenues for finding and eliminating tuberculosis in poor countries, where it kills 1.7 million people every year.
- Skoll Foundation social entrepreneur award citation, skollfoundation.org/entrepreneur/bart-weetjens