Jan. 28, 2023

10. The Super-Sniffers

10. The Super-Sniffers

Meet the HeroRats of APOPO - African giant pouched rats which are trained to sniff out landmines (in order to remove them and make land safe) and detect tuberculosis in lab samples. In this episode we learn about their training and their work, as well as some potential future projects.

Hang out with Magawa, Ronin, Carolina and more - and change your perspective of rats forever! 

APOPO website  

HeroRat adoptions:  https://apopo.org/support-us/adopt/?v=d2cb7bbc0d23

Magawa's award ceremony. https://www.pdsa.org.uk/what-we-do/animal-awards-programme/pdsa-gold-medal/magawa

Bart Weetjens TED talk.  https://www.ted.com/talks/bart_weetjens_how_i_taught_rats_to_sniff_out_land_mines

Training rats for earthquake victim rescue.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tuShm833KW8

Rats detecting tuberculosis. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HtrRtfmN_T8

Full-cheek Friday!  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m0C01fq3Otk


Featured Music:

Another Good Day by Keys of Moon | https://soundcloud.com/keysofmoon
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Creative Commons / Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

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[Music playing]

HOST: Hello, and welcome back to the Animal Friendly podcast. To celebrate the podcast's first milestone - our tenth episode - I had the pleasure of learning all about the HeroRats (and Dogs) of APOPO. If you don't know about these rats, you're in for a treat, and if you do, I know you'll enjoy hearing more details of their work - past, present and future.

The HeroRats are African giant pouched rats, and with their amazing sense of smell, they're trained to detect the presence of buried landmines and similar remnants of war so that these can be removed and huge areas of land made safe again. Not only that, the rats can also detect TB - tuberculosis - from sputum samples, which speeds up the diagnosis and treatment of this terrible disease. Anyway, I'll let Emma tell you all about it.

(music fades out)

So, we're here today with Emma Mortiboy of the APOPO organisation. So I guess the best thing to do is start off by telling us, what is APOPO, what does APOPO do?

EMMA: Okay, so APOPO's core vision and values really are to save people, through scent-detection technology.  So that scent-detection technology is a really kind of horrible rigid way to talk about our animals, who are a huge part of our family.  We want to effectively deploy the most cost-efficient  methods to be able to rid the world of landmines and tuberculosis, at the moment, and we of course use rats. Now, these rats, they're not your average rats, these are actually Cricetomys and Sorgoy, so they're African giant-pouched rats, and they are huge - probably about the size of a cat - they're free-roaming around subSaharan Africa and therefore considered a bit of a pest. So using them, and their amazing sense of smell, we're actually able to detect landmines and also tuberculosis, but I'll go into more details on that later on.  That's our core values effectively.

And also, on top of that, what we do in an existing way is to research and develop new ways that we might be able to use our HeroRats as well.

HOST: Ya, that's the whole thing, you're expanding all the time. So, we better start with the detecting landmines - oh ya, I was reading that they're giant pouched rats and I didn't...where are the pouches? And it's their cheeks! Their cheeks! (laughing) So like, when you say a rat can put a whole banana in its cheeks, you're not kidding.

EMMA: Not kidding, our amazing communications manager, Lily, she's based in Tanzania, our headquarters, so, all of our HeroRats are actually born and bred in Tanzania and every single Friday we do a Full Cheek Friday which is hugely popular on social media-

HOST (aside): Just to explain, Full Cheek Friday is when the rats have a feast. At the end of the week, there's a bunch of food laid out - banana, fruits and nuts - and the rats can have whatever they want. 

EMMA: -and they are like mini-hoovers, so (hoover sound) it's all gone, and it's all in their cheeks and at the end of the video they have nice round cheeks and then they kind of go back to their nesting pots and hide it from their friends. (laughing)

HOST: Ya, I was saying, what happens? It's all in their cheeks and then, what, they go and stash it?

EMMA: Stash it, yeah (laughing)

HOST: I love those videos, they're so addictive because they're just stuffing this food in, and they're so happy, and you're going, those rats have the best life.

EMMA: They are so well cared for. I mean, actually...ya, I have to say one thing about going to Tanzania last year was absolutely brilliant to see everything in real life, you know, but actually more than that, I've a huge animal lover and I would never work for an organisation that was not absolutely, you know, in love with the animals that they're working with in some way. And it totally cemented that for me, the care and the love that these rats get is phenomenal.  Honestly, everyone has their favourite, they are genuinely part of the family and then when they retire - so their whole lives are spent with us - we have these huge retirement cages and pens and if they've got friends, they'll be allowed to hang out with their friends and just play with them in their retirement years, and they continue to play and have enrichment and health checks and they get to eat whatever they want when they retire as well.  It was really lovely to see all of that first hand and just know for sure that actually, you know, animals are at the heart of the organisation and their welfare.

HOST: Because I think people are...you see that on social media...people are very concerned about how are the rats being...and I read one thing...so, the rats are being used to help detect for landmines and people were asking, you know, do the rats get blown up, which...let's put that to bed straight away, the rats don't get blown up, my goodness.  It never even occurred to me but it obviously occurred to somebody because it was on the social media...Ahm, no, the rats are too light to set off landmines?

EMMA: Absolutely. So, five kilograms is about the weight that would set off an unexploded remnant of war or a landmine. Our rats weigh a maximum of, I think about 1.7 for the heavier males, and no animal in the entire history - 25 years of APOPO - has ever even been harmed. We would never, ever do anything to put animals in harm's way. 

HOST: That's quite a boast isn't it? 25 years, that's great.

EMMA: Whenever I tell people about where I work, half of the people do say - kamikaze rats? - I'm like noooo!. So people do seem to think that we're sending rats out to their peril but we are definitely, a hundred percent not.

HOST: So there are, there's quite a number of videos showing details of how they get trained and how they work, so would you like to sort of explain a bit how, how are they...it's clicker training, isn't it?

EMMA: Ya exactly, so it's positive reinforcement...When the pups are born in our headquarters, they initially are left with mum, just for the first four weeks, we don't interfere at all, mum does all the work. Then it's really important that we start socialising them and habituating them. So that means that we have to get them used to things like noisy car engines and driving, lots of different people, a hubbub of sounds, and kind of footsteps and things dropping. So we have Uncle Albert in Tanzinia and he leads the way in how we socialise and habituate all of our rats. So it starts off with that so that they are incredibly friendly. From that point onwards we do the clicker. And it's just simply hear the click, get a food reward, and hear the click and it's that Pavlov's dog kind of thing. And then we start graduating to a table-top where we might have a couple of tea-eggs.

HOST (aside): A tea-egg - in case you don't know - is a small, hollow, metal sphere, with tiny holes in it. You can put tea leaves into it and put that into hot water and brew up a lovely cup of tea. Or, in this case, you can fill it with TNT, which is a type of explosive.

EMMA: One tea-egg might have TNT in and a few of the others might have camomile in, and the rat will be intrigued - rats are curious - so actually they're perfect for this - so they've got hugely sensitive sense of smell, and they will indicate there's something there. They kind of show, they're kind of interested and they might scratch at it but we do not click on the camomile, we only click on the TNT. And they soon learn to distinguish, that actually, it's that scent, whatever those compounds that they're sniffing, in the TNT, that equals food. And then we move them onto, kind of ground level soil training, and then in Tanzania we have these huge training fields, uhm...I was lucky enough to see them - although I have to say it is really strange to stand in an area that you know is safe, but that there are landmines - it's really strange feeling, uhm, and then they obviously have to work out in those environments, that's why they have to be used to getting in the car, being driven somewhere, being transported in their travel cages, and then they work, maximum, about 20 minutes.

And when they've passed all of those little stages, they can be deployed. And that's for just the landmine detection, the TB detection similar in terms of there's just the food reward, and when they find the uh, the tuberculosis samples. So, similar training technique.

HOST: Right. And of course they do have to be socialised because they are going every...you can't have them getting a fright with every little thing that -

EMMA: They're prey animals and, you know, actually some - it depends on their personality as well, some of the rats are really bold and outgoing and, you know, they're perfectly suited for mine detection, but we might have a really shy rat in there that is still kind of just not quite as brave as the others and they might be more suited towards tuberculosis, because actually, the laboratory work is in a more confined space, it's quieter, and, you know, they're just not being travelled and moved around so much, so, we usually find an area in which a rat will work even if they're not confident in one particular area...but you're right, absolutely, they need to get used to all of that (laughing).

HOST: Ahm, what you were saying about the landmines, I've...since I've kind of been researching this and you know, learning a bit about you guys, I've started thinking that...I go for a walk and I think, I just take it for granted that I can just go for a walk in the woods, or whatever, and, you know, it's really such important work, because, you know, it makes, even if you have an enormous area, if there's only one landmine there, that whole area is off bounds, because you don't know, where is it, ya?

EMMA: Exactly. And actually, we introduced technical survey dogs and they are amazing at expediting land release, so that's a really good example. Our head of mine action, Michael, will say something like...I think it's something like 3% of an area will actually have landmines on it but, as you say, you know, that whole area is contaminated, so people can't go onto the land, but the dogs actually really speed up that land release. So dogs train slightly differently, they're trained to sit and then their backpacks will point upwards, and they're trained to sit one metre away from the scent of the explosives, so, when the backpack points upwards, the dog handler can see that change on the GPS and then they can mark a one metre square around the dog and know that in that area somewhere, there is explosives. And then we only need to clear that tiny patch of land, and bring in the rats and just find that particular piece of whatever sort of explosive it was. So the dogs and the rats work in beautiful harmony, in that respect, and we get to release lots of land really quickly with the dogs.

HOST: That's a good segue, because the first, the very first episode I did was out with search dogs - search and rescue dogs, which was so much fun - ahm, but I learned that the dog works with one handler, and that's it. You don't swap around the dogs. But the whole point of the rats is, you can swap around, anybody can learn to work with the rats. They are deployed, to different areas - a little gang of them (laughing), they come in, like hey, ready to go, and you train people as well to work with them?

EMMA: Exactly. So we always employ locally so if we're working in Cambodia for example, we will employ from local villages, and a lot of people actually are quite keen to help. You know, they've lived in fear of these unexploded remnants of war for their lifetimes and they want to help and be involved. Ahm, or it might be Angola or South Sudan, and once those people are trained - they have to go through very rigorous training, whether or not it's just handling with the rats or it is actually the task of demining itself, which is incredibly dangerous. And then once they've reached that level and they're fully accredited, you know, it gives them skills as well, and we have people that travel around now and train other people in other parts of the world, which is really fantastic, so, we're giving people sort of locally the opportunity to help in their own situation, as well as earn money and learn skills for life, really.

HOST: Ya, so let's go on to the tuberculosis then, because, I was reading about it and I didn't realise that tuberculosis was so prevalant, and so dangerous, I guess.

EMMA Absolutely. I mean, before Covid it was the world's deadliest respiratory illness. It actually, because of Covid has been set back hugely because lots and lots of people have not been going to the clinics, and getting their screenings, so some of the most high burdened countries in the world are, you know, in Africa and Asia Ahm, we're currently working in Ethiopia, Mozambique and Tanzania to detect tuberculosis, and we have quite a lot of clinics actually in each of those operating countries. And actually during Covid, we use, we have motor mopeds that we actually shuttle the samples between the clinic and the laboratory and we were actually shuttling around Covid samples, helping, during the pandemic as well. So in any way that we can help, we will.

But yes, you're absolutely right, it's really important to bring tuberculosis back into focus for people - because I think obviously Covid in some ways has set it back but it's also really good opportunity to kind of highlight to people that respiratory illnesses are still out there and killing people every single day. I think every single hour a child dies, so it's something we really need to be mindful of.

HOST (aside): One of the founders of APOPO, Bart Weetjens, has done a TED talk and when he talks about the rats' ability to detect TB, well, you can hear the audience reaction.

TED TALK CLIP: Just as an indication, whereas a microscopist can process 40 samples in a day, a rat can process the same amount of samples in seven minutes only (audience applause)...I would actually like to say, you may think this is about rats, this project, but in the end it is about people. It is about empowering vulnerable communities to tackle difficult, expensive and dangerous humanitarian detection tasks. And doing that with a local resource, plenty available. So, something completely different, is to keep on challenging your perception about the resources surrounding you, whether they are environmental, technological, animal or human. And to respectfully harmonise with them in order to foster a sustainable world. Thank you very much. (audience applause).

HOST: I asked Emma about the time it takes to train a rat compared to their working lifespan - and also the advantages of using rats versus technology.

EMMA: I mean one thing actually about the rats themselves that's really key is that they live to, sort of, about 8 years old. So that training, even if it takes a full year, somewhere around 9 months is the average, ahm, it's a really worthwhile investment because we have probably about five, six years of working with them before they start slowing down, or might want to retire, so it's a really worthwhile investment. And yes, they are super sniffers, they really are. Their olafactory sense is absolutely amazing. They find on average, forty percent more tuberculosis samples than just microscopy alone. So let's take Ethiopia as an example, you know, there might be a lot of power outages or Wifi might not be quite so stable as it is here; it's really expensive to run samples on Gene Expert, just the cartridges for these particular pieces of equipment are reallly expensive. So they just have microscopes and they can often just be using that in a situation. Then those samples are sent to us - every single one of those samples, whether or not the microscope has said it is TB positive or TB negative, everything gets sent to our laboratory and our rats will double-check it, and on average, they find 40% more TB samples - they're then double-checked using World Health Organisation standards to say, indeed, that is the case that these are all TB positive.

And what we've noticed actually, and I think this is why it's forty percent average is that our rats tend to pick up, I think it's about 70% more for children than microscopy. And we think that might be because kids aren't able to produce as much sputum as adults, and so the TB compounds aren't quite as prevelant. But nothing gets past our rats' noses, so...pretty impressive.

HOST: It's really impressive. Okay, so, let's...you obviously, you have great enthusiasm for it, you've been out there...how long have you been working for them, or...how did you come into it?

EMMA: Ya, so, I was actually working in charities for, sort of maybe about 8 years, and I saw this job come up and I knew that I wanted to work for APOPO, I just knew. Because I had heard about APOPO, I think about 5 years ago? It was just a news article, it was well before Magawa and his medal -

HOST (aside): I'm just gonna butt in here to say that we will hear more about the wonder-rat, Magawa, later on.

EMMA: It was just an article about these landmine-sniffing rats and, ahm, it was in 2018 actually, we as a family went to the Gambia, and we saw a large pouched rat running around and I was going, oh - there's a video of me - and it's just this black dot and I'm going, oh my goodness, they sniff landmines and the family's going, mmm, okay (laughing). So I knew all about APOPO and then when I saw the role come up I was just so excited and I was, that was, you know, one of those moments where I was like I am gonna get this job. I really wanted it (laughing).

HOST: It's a topic...I mean, I've said it to a few people over the last few weeks, you know, I'm gonna be talking to these people and some people know but other people are like, what? It really grabs people's imagination. I find people sort of say, but why can't they use a metal detector? So, of course there's a good reason; a metal detector picks up everything. I found that interesting, that it picks up everything so you're constantly going, oh, beep beep beep beep, whereas the rat is just so, he's like, I know what I'm looking for here (laughing).

EMMA: Exactly, we've got a statistic on our website and it is kind of a "on average" but our rats will work for like 20 minutes in the morning - we work to their cycles because they're nocturnal, so it's a very early start. We'll get out into the field wherever the task is and each rat will work for half an hour maximum, and we can clear something the size of a tennis court in about 20 minutes with one HeroRat, and if you were a manual deminer with a metal detector that could take up to 4 days, because, as you say, the average normal amount of, kind of like, can-lids or kind of, just a screw or something in the ground...

HOST: Ya...I had, ahm, I had one guy who was, he was letting his imagination run free, and he was like, well, why don't they fly in a helicopter and drop a whole bunch of rocks and set off the landmines? (exclaims). Aside from the whole expense of getting a helicopter to do this, you don't know if you've set off every one? So, if there's only one landmine left...and I was saying to him, I was like, they've been doing this for 25 years, I think they have it down (laughing)

EMMA: Ya, and I think he would think twice if he saw how close people live in proximity to these landmines as well because, you know, a lot of people do avoid entire areas but other people - actually with the pandemic it really heightened this issue because people were travelling back home from Cambodia, from places like Vietnam, they were coming home, people were put into positions where they were desperate, and they were having to use land that they knew wasn't particularly safe...we have farmers whose cows occasionally get blown up. They know that, they know that there are landmines out there but they have no choice but to continue to farm as the best that they can.  Uhm, and you would be surprised how many landmines we have found so close to homes and schools and...it is shocking, it's shocking...so, we wouldn't do that, and actually, when we have...it depends on they type of  landmine, but we actually move a lot of the cluster munitions together and detonate them in one area, we don't want detonations across the whole of the country, willy-nilly, you would definitely kill people, we would definitely decimate land (laughing) and that is not part of our core values.

(music playing)

HOST (aside): Besides making land safe for people, APOPO are also working to clear the Sengwe wildlife corridor, which connects two National Parks; the Kruger National Park in South Africa and the Gonarezhou National Park in Zimbabwe. The landmines here have been in place for four decades and pose a serious threat to wildlife such as elephants, buffalo, lions and wild dogs, as well as the local communities. 

Both the Kruger and Gonarezhou Parks have about 11,000 elephants each and it's vitally important for the long-term wellbeing of the species that the two populations have safe access to each other to mix gene-pools. 

The landmines also scare away safari and conservation-focused ecotourism. Kruger National Park has a thriving tourist industry and these visitors could potentially travel along the Sengwe corridor and into Gonarezhou Park, with enormouns economic benefit for Zimbabwe.   

(music fades out)

EMMA: So, the Sengwe wildlife corridor is hugely important. As you say, we have lots of very large animals like elephants, every year, crossing. The biggest issue that we've got is that elephants actually are really clever so they will recognise where the areas are, that are dangerous and what's happening is that they are becoming closer and closer to humans, so it's causing animal-human conflict. So there's kind of another little layer to it, not just the dangers, you know, of the mines themselves, and the impact on the animals if they tread on them, but also some of the more intelligent species are now, kind of, causing issues in conflict with those villages that perhaps don't want them traipsing through their farmland. So, yes, we're working in Zimbabwe to clear that wildlife corridor, ahm, but as an organisation I think animal welfare is just hugely part of what we are and our core values and our mission statement anyway.

So, obviously, the rats themselves, we take really good care of them...so, just recently we took in, I think it was four pups that were found in a garage (laughing). One of our researchers, our head of research and innovation, ah, Dr Fass, was called - "We've got these rats" and we're like, "yes, we'll take them", and they're actually going to join our training cohort, why not? But we're also using the rats - and this is very much in the research stages - to detect wildlife products. So, in shipping containers, we are going to be working to - ya - the, we've so far been really successful and the HeroRats are positively identifying pangolin scales,  hardwoods and other wildlife products. Ahm, so that is a really amazing project that will be really transformative. So, eventually, what we want to be able to do is get to a place where they've just got vents in these shipping containers and the rats would just be able to tell from sniffing or opening the doors. You know, they can get into very small tight places so they can kind of - if there's something in that shipping container that should not be there, then, we're very hopeful that our rats will find it. So far, the results have been amazing, our rats are doing brilliantly.

HOST: So that's kind of to prevent smuggling?

EMMA: Exactly, yeah.

HOST (aside): As you can hear, APOPO are always looking out for new ways in which the HeroRats can be deployed, and another innovation is to use them in the aftermath of earthquakes or other natural disastors, in order to search collapsed buildings. There are videos online showing the rats wearing little backpacks going about this endeavour so I brought this topic up next.

HOST: I loved...because I read the article for training for earthquake vicitims...to check out...and they have the little SMART backpacks on, and like, the longer you watch this video the more you sorta think, that's Tom Cruise, he's just like (laughing), it's so brilliant, they're just so purposeful and they're like, yeah, I'm going in here, and he's got his jacket on and, I just love it, but it's that curiosity that you mentioned, they will dig in...I think it was one of the search dog people said that you really want a dog that just won't stop, that's just so curious (oh, yeah) everywhere, and you're like, will you cut it out (laughing), so that's like rats do, they'll just go anywhere, they're like, I gotta figure this out.

EMMA: Exactly. And when I was there, actually, it was ahm, we built a training debris site in Tanzania, so kinda just a big building that we're gonna fill with lots of debris (laughing) and it's slowly being filled up and the rats are still training and it's gonna take a while for all the results to come together and, you know, really try and replicate that kind of pancake model, of a buildling collapsed. And, uh, as you say, their curiousity means that they are gonna have to get into small nooks and crannies and they will do it willingly. The one thing that we have been, uhm, thinking about is what message that backpack plays, because if you're crushed in a buildling collapse and a rat pokes his nose out, you may not necessarily be (laughing) too enamoured.

HOST: You don't think he's there to rescue you, yeah.

EMMA: Exactly, so we're sort of trying, I think the team are trying to think of a sentence that can be played that can be quite reassuring, so "please do not panic, I'm part of the search and rescue team" - but then I don't know whether you think, you might have a mild concussion or something (laughing)

HOST: This rat is talking to you! (laughing)

EMMA: But yes, they are going to be much more effective than, than even robots, just because they can get into the tiniest nooks and crannies.

HOST: So I think this is one of...like, you're like really highly ranked by Global Giving, Charity Navigator, that's what I love about it, if you give money to you - like I bought a few rat Christmas presents and people were delighted - first they were saying, what is this, did you buy me a rat, are you crazy? (laughing) And then when they read it, they say, oh, that's so cool...but like, every dollar or euro that you guys get, you really put it good use.

EMMA: Oh yes, we don't pay stupidly high executive salaries, we're really proud of the fact that 90% of every, or 90 cent for every dollar or euro goes directly to the work that we do on the ground. Which is a really amazing statistic. I know in the UK, I think the average is about 83% so 90% is phenomenal.  Yeah, if you donate to APOPO we really make that money work, and you genuinely are saving lives. 

HOST: And you guys have different ways like, you've got donations but I love your gift...and your merchandise...the little t-shirts with HeroRats...yeah, I'm really going to encourage people to browse the website because there's different ways of giving...of giving gifts, ahm, and it's a great conversation.

HOST (aside): At this point, we discussed the efforts being made worldwide to try and ban landmines.

HOST: So some countries are trying to ban landmines?

EMMA: Yes, there is something, it was set up in 1997, it's called the Ottowa Treaty, so that is a mine-ban convention. The whole point is that you're not supposed to stockpile, lay, sell, produce landmines in any way whatsoever. Lots of countries have signed it, however, some of the big players have not - so, China, Russia and the US. And once all of those people have signed it, obviously, I think we will see more change. There is, kind of a, sort of movement to try and rid the world of landmines by 2025 so Landmine Free 2025, uh, and then we have situations like the Ukraine, which is obviously meaning that we are still probably going to be working removing these remnants of that war until everyone signs that Ottowa Treaty, I think, you know, we're not going to get to a place where the world is genuinely landmine free. But I would love to see every country sign that Treaty and then the work that we do is final and that's it.

HOST: You kinda want to be put out of business there, and then you can go on with your other work.

EMMA: Tuberculosis still, and possibly other diseases.

HOST: And the fact that you are exploring other things.  Oh yes, I did look at the TED talk, your founder talking about how he came up with the idea, but do you want to just talk a little bit about that?

EMMA: Yes, so Bart was, this was back in the mid-nineties, he was studying product design at Antwerp University. Ahm, he actually went over to Angola and saw first hand when you visit these countries, when you see landmine victims, it is horrifying. When Bart was a little boy, he used to love rodents. He used to actually breed them, so breed rats, mice, hamsters, I think even squirrels at some stage, and he would sell rats and things to friends, family, pet shops, it was just kind of a little, a little bit of an earner for him, but he loved rats, he knew how clever they were, he knew how good their sense of smell was, and actually just how easily trainable they were. So he's in Angola and he sees all of these rats everywhere that are considered a pest, he sees a problem (laughing), he kind of goes back to Antwerp University with this novel, very novel idea and thankfully had a supervisor that was like, yes, let's do it. So Bart and Christof set up this project. They proved the methods, they brought back rats from Africa and proved that the concept works. And then in 1998 we set up our headquarters in Tanzania and obviously we haven't looked back since.

HOST: It is, it's that real lateral thinking of putting together two things and coming up with something completely mad but brilliant, and that it works.

HOST (aside): Well, I promised we'd get back to Magawa and so, let's hear about this Hero of HeroRats, who is the first rat ever to be awarded a PDSA medal, which honours animals for life-saving bravery and devotion in military and civilian life. Here's a clip from his awards ceremony.

PDSA: We've honoured animals for their intelligence and skill, their loyalty and devotion, even laying down their lives for the people they love. But such acts of gallantry aren't only found in war. For those animals who show life-saving bravery and devotion in civilian life, we award the PDSA Gold Medal, the animals' George Cross.  Magawa is a true HeroRat, and we're thrilled to celebrate his life-saving devotion by awarding him the PDSA Gold Medal. Magawa's medal has been specially designed to fit onto his work harness, so he can wear it anytime. As mentioned in the film, Magawa was trained by the charity, APOPO, and I'd like to now hand over to Christophe Cox, their chieft executive and co-founder, to formally accept Magawa's Gold Medal.

CHRISTOPHE COX: I must really say we are very honoured. Personally, I'm working here for more than twenty-three years and this is the first time that one of our animals is awarded with such a prestigious award. It also means a lot to our partners, for example, the Sokoine University of Agriculture here in Morogoro, Tanzania, where our rats are trained. It means a lot to our trainers because they are working day and night to get the best performance out of our HeroRats. For us it's very important also that PDSA brings the landmine problem to the attention of the wider public, because landmines still terrorise the lives of so many Cambodians and other people all over the world. We hope that we can solve the landmine problem in the next five to ten years. But it needs the engagement and the support of the wider public. That is also why this award is very important for us. Therefore, on behalf of our team, and behalf of APOPO, I really want to thank PDSA for this excellent opportunity and this great award. Thank you very much.

HOST: But that's not the only recognition Magawa has achieved...

EMMA: So there aren't many competitors in this particular field but Magawa has the Guinness World Record for the most landmines found by a rat, so, like I say, not much competition there in the world but he was an amazing HeroRat working in Cambodia. He won...it's the equivalent of the George Cross medal, from the PDSA, that was actually in 2000 and he died last year, it was, it was the beginning of last year so we were all really sad. In, actually, in Tanzania, they have now named a street after him, which is really sweet, and he, ya, he retired probably about 6 months before he died, he started to slow down, but he's held the record for the most landmines ever found by any of our HeroRats.  What's interesting is that the adoption of Magawa automatically updated to a different HeroRat in Cambodia called Ronin, and I think Magawa helped train these, uh, this cohort of new rats when they arrived actually in Cambodia, because, uhm, the expert rats obviously know what they're doing and it's a good way to kind of get the new rats on board. But Ronin, his replacement, as it were in terms of the adoption animal, is doing really really well, so it may be that he overtakes Magawa, which would be really quite crazy (lauging)

HOST: That's the other thing, like, I love your Facebook and your social media coz you really, you know, get the sense that each rat is unique, they're like, oh, that's whatever and she's always talking loads of stuff and oh that guy goes crazy for peanuts and - here, you talk about them, you obviously know them as that little character and that guy...and of course there's no...ahm, one of my first thoughts was like, is it girl or boy rats, and there seems to be no difference which is kinda cool.

EMMA: It is, absolutely. Actually, something else while we're on men and women, actually, when I was in Tanzania, this was lovely, this was a great thing to see, but I mean, I'd say about 50% of our staff now are female, and we have a lot of women work within the demining arena as well, which is brilliant.  Whilst I was in Tanzania we were accreditiing a new cohort of handlers for the rats, and the woman that uh, performed the best, was actually, I think, probably about 6 months pregnant.  So, I was like, yesss. So, ya, we're all about, sort of, equality and diversity.

HOST: Because, of course, there's all that, uhm - we've talked about the animals - but there's all the demining, the actual technical stuff as well. So people are quite brave to learn, but I guess they want to clear away these things...

EMMA: Absolutely, and if you speak to any of our deminers I think the first time that they go onto a minefield, there's always a corridor that's cleared and the first time they step foot - I mean, it was like, I feel ridiculous on a training field to feel the same way, but their heart is in their throat, and, you know, but at least, they do realise that, you know, we have so much, sort of ahm, health and safety policies around, you know, kind of making sure that every t is crossed and i is dotted, so there is no chance of any accidents, and they soon gather their confidence and work quite quickly, but, yeah, the first time, I think we've interviewed a few and they're like, the first time we stepped foot on that minefield there is no feeling in the world like it, just terrifying. 

HOST (aside): In November 2022, APOPO had their 25th birthday, and Jane Goodall, their Friend and Advisory Board Member, sent them birthday wishes.

JANE GOODALL: Hello, this is Jane Goodall, I'm sending very warm birthday wishes to APOPO. For twenty-five years, APOPO has been training giant forest rats, or HeroRats, as they're known, to detect landmines buried under the ground and the earliest signs of tuberculosis. I'm urging you now to support the continuing work of APOPO, and it's wonderful HeroRats. Thank you.

HOST: So, there's HeroRats, HeroDogs and now, even HeroTrees.

EMMA: We had the idea to kind of offset some of our carbon, obviously we travel and we deploy the HeroRats and they're using airplanes, and we also use machinery, uhm, to cut down vegetation - if we do ever cut down vegetation we never cut down trees, that's one thing that I should add - but it was just an idea or concept to offset some of that carbon. Ahm, it has grown, it has grown since then. Our headquarters in Tanzanzia is in Morogoro, now that is in the foothills of the Uluru mountains which is, you know, a mountain range of huge ecological importance. You have lots and lots of farmers and villages scattered across the mountains that are using very old-fashioned sort of methodologies towards farming - like slash and burn and things like that, so, what we did is set up this project in partnership with sustainable agriculture Tanzania (SAT) to basically plant trees. But not just plant trees, plant trees in a way that gives people food throughout the year. So we have something called syntropic farming and you will plant sort of higher level trees and lower level plants and what it means is that throughout the year something will be in bloom or fruiting for you so that you can eat it while something else perhaps is dying back and then that's giving lots of mulch to the land and improving the nitrogen and the carbon and the quality of the soil, so we're teaching people how to farm with the environment in mind, so we're not just reforesting the environment, we're also giving people the opportunity to provide their families with food, possibly even make an income with the food selling it at market, but more importantly, we're improving the ecosystem in the Uluguru mountains, and that soil quality, which in turn improves the water quality and that has a huge knock-on effect throughout Tanzania, even down as far as Dar es Salaam on the coast. So it's actually a really environmentally important project.

HOST: You're just like, you're trying to find good wherever, where can we do good? (laughing). I think we've covered everything...?

EMMA: If I just say about the adoptions and the HeroGifts...there are actually three HeroRats up for adoption.  Ahm, one of them we've got  a new adoption package where we're following Baraka.  So Baraka is still currently in Tanzania, he is a couple of months old - you were asking about the training...so if someone is adopting Baraka, they genuinely get to see Baraka's training to become a mine detection rat in real time, so that's a lovely adoption. And we also have Carolina, the tuberculosis sniffing wonder- rat, and also Ronin, who replaced Magawa in Cambodia and Ronin is an amazing HeroRat, he is finding so many landmines - yes, you can adopt any of those three rats and every month you will get an update on their work as well.

HOST: It's just wonderful. Even as a spectator, it's wonderful to be involved and learn about them, and follow up. And so I have to say thank you to my mum, who said, why don't you talk to those guys...?

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EMMA: Awww, thanks mum! (laughing).

HOST: So, I think that's it, ahm, thank you so much, and I hope this is a job for life for you coz you're obviously really into it (laughing).

EMMA: Oh thank you Samantha. Lovely to talk to you, thank you so much. 

HOST: Best of luck and keep up the good work.

HOST (aside): Those adoptions that Emma talked about can be found on their website, apopo.org. And it's only nine euro a month to adopt a rat and support her or his training, that's thirty cent a day, incredible value to support life-changing work. I hope you enjoyed this episode as much as I did, and do feel free to check out some of the links in the shownotes, and watch videos of the HeroRats in action. My thanks again to Emma and all at APOPO, and thank you, dear listeners, for joining me for these first 10 episodes. So far, so good. See you next time.

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