My short bio: Christophe has led APOPO's team for the past two decades and has many years of management experience in East Africa. Christophe holds an MSc in Product Development & Development Sciences and developed much of APOPO's technical apparatus. He has guided APOPO from a wild idea into an award-winning NGO with operations in Angola, Cambodia, Colombia, Ethiopia, and Zimbabwe.

My Proof: only joking, real proof -

About APOPO: APOPO is a non-profit that trains rats to save lives. Based in Tanzania, the organisation has pioneered the development of scent detection rats, nicknamed HeroRATs. We’re on a mission to develop detection rats technology to provide solutions for global problems and inspire positive social change. It was our 20th birthday last month!

About Landmine Detection Rats: APOPO's landmine detection rats have helped sniff out more than 100,000 mines, returned 22 million square meters of land, and helped free nearly one million people from the threat of explosives.

About Tuberculosis Detection Rats: APOPO's tuberculosis detection rats have safely sniffed nearly than 450,000 sputum samples identifying 12,000 additional cases of TB that were missed by clinics.

Support Us: You can make a donation or adopt a HeroRAT at our website.

Watch: The Bomb-Sniffing Rats Saving Lives In Mozambique

Ask me anything you like about APOPO, detection rats, animal training, landmines, tuberculosis, innovation, non-profits, or living in Africa for the past twenty years.

Christophe will begin answering questions at 1pm EST. /u/APOPO_Robin and /u/c_herorat will be helping out in the comments too.

EDIT - Thanks for all your interesting questions - and you can always find us on our Facebook page or via email if you have more questions. I am mostly in Morogoro, Tanzania, where it's going to 11 pm now, but still 30 degrees celsius! /u/APOPO_Robin and /u/C_HeroRAT will answer any other questions you have. Thanks again.

Comments: 84 • Responses: 24  • Date: 

Edgar_Allan_Rich8 karma

Hello! I immediately fell in love with APOPO as soon as I discovered you guys and I've been a monthly contributor ever since. Thanks for doing what you do.

1) Is there any way for a traveler to see your workers and rats in action? Perhaps a volunteer mission?

2) I requested hi-res photos of your trainers and rats in action to hang at my home for visitors to see in hopes of encouraging them to get involved. Your people totally hooked it up. Animal-lovers dig it, but since most people think rats are gross, what other ways would you suggest to help turn people on to your cause?


APOPO_Christophe2 karma

Thank you so much for the kind words. Yes, travelers can see our rats in action - most convenient is in our training centre in Tanzania or in our recently opened APOPO visitors centre in Siem Reap. Thanks also for promoting us with the photos! We appreciate any initiative which will support us, be it word to mouth, be it organizing a group or a visible event - sure everyone has skills to contribute. You can also adopt a HeroRAT which makes for a great holiday gift!

Rapsi_20156 karma

What was your initial reaction when you first heard of the idea to train rats to detect landmines?

APOPO_Christophe3 karma

Haha - at the time I was working in Kenya, and I was communicating 2-3 times per week with my colleague Bart Weetjens via postal mail. That was just before the internet age. Had to drive 30 km to get that letter in the town post office. My first reaction when I opened that letter where he wrote about rats detecting mines is that he must have had a good night out...but after that I was quickly convinced.

flatchampagne3 karma

how do you go about training a rat to detect mines? seems like such a hard thing to do.

APOPO_Christophe2 karma

Thanks for your question. It is not so hard, but you need to be systematic. We start from the breeding program, via socialization, scent imprint and then slowly making it more difficult step by step until your rat can search a few hundred square meters without missing a mine.

MrsMantis3 karma

I love APOPO! Thank you for doing this AMA. I have always wondered why landmines and TB? These are obviously worthy causes but how and why were they selected against the many other applications that the rats could have been trained for?

APOPO_Christophe3 karma

When we started my colleague Bart Weetjens got intrigued by the landmine problem and after an analysis immediately found that the detection of the landmines is the hardest part. Rats came up as part of a systematic study and brainstorm comparing possible detection techniques. After a feasibility study we moved to Tanzania where our University had a collaboration in the field of rodent research. However, Tanzania has no landmines, but is one of the high burden TB countries. Again - detection was the main problem, as 30% of the people dying from TB are never diagnosed.

amooseme3 karma

Is there any new training or ideas in progress for teaching the rats to do other worthwhile things?

APOPO_Christophe4 karma

Well, we are working on a proof of concept that rats could detect illegal wildlife trade. Currently we are testing if they can differentiate pangolin scales and African hardwood among a bunch of other smells.

We are also exploring if rats could be used for search and rescue after disasters occur, to search for survivors. The rats could enter small cavities where dogs can't reach.

thinking-buck2 karma

Could you put tiny cameras on them with microphone/speaker/gps?

APOPO_Christophe6 karma

Yes we can! We did an initial experiment some years ago in first study to use rats for search and rescue. Meanwhile the technology has evolved and we are talking with a Search and Rescue group as well as with engineers to develop the technology for this same purpose, using infrared cameras to find survivors, which would also have to include GPS and communication equipment, all in a small backpack. Currently we are testing a small electronic ball-pull switch around the neck to see if rats can give just an electronic response in situations where we could not observe their behavior.

neonmantis3 karma

What's your favorite rat story?

APOPO_Christophe2 karma

Hehe...I will never forget the moment when we just started our feasibility study in Belgium, where a loose rat walked up to a heap of sand. What it didn't know but what I witnessed was a cat walking up the same heap of sand on the other side. They met each other on top of the pile...nose to nose..I thought damn, this is not good for ratty! But what happened, the rat blew its pouches and the cat ran off scared like hell.

coryrenton3 karma

Is there a registry or memorial of hero rats who have died in the service?

APOPO_Christophe6 karma

We had a ceremonial burial in Cambodia this year when one rat passed away due to illness. It was attended by all trainers in Cambodia.

caknuckleheadinpa3 karma

are your humans assigned their own rat to work with, or do they rotate assignments?

APOPO_Christophe5 karma

Usually they have their own rat, but for example when staff members take their holidays, their colleagues will be happy to take over. This also happens when rats move between countries - they will encounter new trainers.

MeatMeintheMeatus3 karma

Where do you get these rodents of unusual size? Florin?

APOPO_Christophe3 karma

Cricetomys or African Giant Pouched Rats are quite common in Sub-Saharan Africa, from East to West. One can see them mostly roaming at night, during daytime they mostly spend underground. However, we only train rats which have been bred in-house.

nm5988e2 karma

Is there anyway or plans to expand APOPO into other countries / areas that have mines?

APOPO_Christophe4 karma

We are currently preparing for operations in both Zimbabwe and Colombia. In Zimbabwe the rats will help save elephants, as the 37 km long mine belt we have been allocated, is in the midst of one of the largest trans-frontier wildlife parks in the world, and is actually a wildlife corridor. Colombia on the other hand, is littered with improvised explosive devices.

rats_are_fun2 karma

When the rats "retire" do staff adopt them?

APOPO_Christophe8 karma

No, we have our own retirement home for the rats. It are spacious cages in open air, but covered from sun and rain, where they have different levels so they can climb and have toys to play. We make sure they receive good food every day and live out their days in comfort with us!

forava72 karma

what lead to you guys going "hey, rats can smell bombs?" What was your eureka moment?

APOPO_Christophe3 karma

Both myself and my colleague Bart Weetjens who came up with the idea of using rats were trained as industrial designers. This involves systematic brainstorming techniques to collect ideas and solutions to problems. As Bart was a rodent owner, and already having dogs detecting landmines - the analogy was not far away.

coryrenton2 karma

What's the danger of the rats triggering the landmines and how do you mitigate that?

APOPO_Christophe5 karma

There is virtually no danger, since rats are too light to set off a landmine. However, demining is fundamentally dangerous work and we take every precaution to keep our rats and human staff safe. We follow strict safety procedures in line with international protocols. We’re aware that a problem could strike at any moment and we keep a trained medic on site at all times.

poggee2 karma

has a rat ever.... made a mistake?

APOPO_Christophe3 karma

As far as we are aware, we have never found any missed mine behind a rat in the real minefields. We have had several trials with external partners with 100% quality control, for respectively 3 and 7 months. We had a full year with 30% quality control, and all other operations have typically around 10-15% quality control - using metal detectors.

JemaineLaw2 karma

How do you ensure that your rats stay disease free?

APOPO_Christophe1 karma

We have daily visual checks of the rats, and weekly thorough checks by a qualified veterinary doctor. Being native to tropical climates, they are well adapted to the environment they work in.

coryrenton1 karma

what's the logistics like for inventorying so many rats? are they tagged with RFID chips, GPS locators or anything like that?

APOPO_Christophe3 karma

The rats have subcutaneous chips indeed with each a unique number. However - most trainers just know their rat and we prefer to use their given names.

SVcross1 karma

Do you think Hot Dogs are sandwiches?

APOPO_Christophe2 karma

No, but I do think that Mine Detection dogs are Hot

nm5988e1 karma

Are there any other animals that could be heroes in the sense that the rats are?

APOPO_Christophe1 karma

I think all animals are Heroes in their own respect. There is of course a lot of heroic work done by dogs, ranging from rescue dogs, mine detection dogs and dogs for the blind. But mind you that also bees have been trained to detect explosives and we even have bacterial Heroes detecting cancer!

thinking-buck1 karma

Why doesn't every hospital have one of your tb sniffing rats in the lobby?

APOPO_Christophe1 karma

There wouldn't be enough work for them and logistically it would be challenging. Rats are well suited to do mass volume screening - 100 samples in about 15 minutes. Therefore we opt for a more centralized approach where we can also monitor the quality of the work.

throwaway_genie1 karma

how does rat sniffing and detection dffer from that of dogs? aren't rats at risk to contract TB because of sniffing?

APOPO_Christophe2 karma

Both animals are so sensitive that we lack the analytical equipment to measure difference in sensitivity. Rats have more functional genes for the olfactory system than any other mammal. The difference comes in mainly that dogs are a bit more intelligent, can do more independent work - but are quite attached to their trainers. Rats instead like very much repetitive work and it takes less specialized skills to train a rat.

nm5988e1 karma

How do you find yourself in the line of work of hero rats?

APOPO_Christophe1 karma

Bart Weetjens, who came up with the idea of using rats for landmine detection was a schoolmate of mine. When I went to do my social service in Africa, in replacement of military duty, he supported me from Belgium by fundraising for our program in schools. So we set up a charity together with him and the founder of our design school. A few years later when I came back to Belgium, he had already prepared the work and we got our first Grant for the idea from the Belgian Government in November 1997. As we were planning to work this all out in Africa, my 3 years overseas experience came in handy.

MegaHawkful1 karma

How many rats do you have in "employment" for lack of better term? And what are your plans for expansion?

APOPO_Christophe5 karma

We have about 300 rats, though sometimes I lose count. Several are in use for landmine detection, in Angola and Cambodia, we have rats for TB detection in Mozambique and Tanzania, and just got the export permit to send some to Ethiopia. We have other rats for the wildlife products study, some for trying out new technologies, and of course we have a sizable breeding colony. We hope to send rats in the near future to Zimbabwe and Colombia, and we would also love to start training them on cluster munition - which is a widespread problem in Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos.

Fallacy_Referee-3 karma

Wait, so you guys just send a rat out in a minefield and wait for it to step on one? Doesn't seem very fun for the rat. How many rats have been blown up?

APOPO_Christophe3 karma

There has never been a rat which was blown up by a landmine - they are too light to set them off and far to valuable and lovable to let them explode. They scan a minefield systematically on a search string, and they pinpoint the presence of a mine by scratching on the they would do if they found food.