The Colombian Government has unveiled their latest weapon against landmines – rats.
Now in the final stages of a project that has been running since 2006, the Colombian Government hopes that the specially bred rodents will prove invaluable to Colombia’s losing battle against mines.
Scientists hope that the rats will play a pivotal role in beating the mine scourge, which Government sources estimate affects 31 of Colombia’s 32 provinces.
The rats’ anti-mine training comes in two parts. First of all, the rats are trained by their mother to navigate a maze containing landmine metals and wires. The mother demonstrates that by finding dead-ends containing the metals, the rats will receive a sugary reward.
Once rats grasp the concept of mines equals treats, the rodents are trained in an outside enclosure where they are taught to respond to verbal commands, as well as to dig and scratch around potential mine sites.
After five generations of breeding, scientists feel they are confident enough in the rats to use them in the field. Supported by a team of experienced deminers, the rats should help alert their minders to the presence of any explosives.
It is hoped that mine-hunting rats can replace their canine counterparts, as their highly developed sense of smell can rival a dog’s, with the added bonus that rats are a lot less likely to inadvertently set off the explosives.
Luisa Fernanda Mendez, scientific director of the program, said, "Contrary to what you see in other countries that have signed the Mine Ban Treaty, mines continue to be planted in our country ... while other countries continue to get the number of mines down, ours goes up,"
Colombia faces a monumental struggle against landmines, despite the devices being outlawed. Experts say that left-wing guerrillas Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), other guerrilla groups, and criminal organisations are to blame, using the explosives as part of their 47-year campaign against the Government.
The mines claimed 535 casualties last year, with 287 dead or injured in the first half of 2011 alone. At least 63% of the casualties were Government security forces.
Additionally, according to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, Colombia is second only to Afghanistan when it comes to overall casualities from landmines.
Mine clearing in Colombia remains a massive problem, as sowing techniques used by FARC where mines are placed in close proximity to one another makes clearing a much more laborious task than usual.
Efforts to clear the explosives were further hampered by the Colombian Government’s decision to block Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) from launching their own demining efforts; a decision that was only recently overturned.
"Currently there is no humanitarian demining process except the one undertaken by the armed forces ... we have objections to that demining because, in our judgment, the process is not compatible with international standards for humanitarian demining," said Alvaro Jimenez, the national coordinator of the Colombian Campaign Against Mines.
In 2010, the Colombian Government only managed to clear an area equal to less than a tenth of a square mile, but recovered 196 devices in the process.
However, alongside the development of the rat demining programme, the decision to enable NGOs to begin their own demining experience has been greeted by the Organisation of American States, who have begun a programme of their own to train and accredit deminers for the NGOs.
"If we do not begin to master the demining process, we will never complete the terms of the [mine ban] treaty, and moreover, we'll never have a free countryside," said Mendez.
A rat gets a reward for finding a mine.
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