MOROGORO, Tanzania -- Far from the outbreak of monkeypox that shed light on a worrisome increase in exotic pets in the United States, Mathias and his pals are hard at work in rural Tanzania learning how to locate land mines.
When they succeed, they get bits of ripe bananas.
In their little red, black and blue harnesses, they look like miniature sniffer dogs. But their trainers at Sokoine University of Agriculture say the giant African pouched rats can do a much better job.
"Rats are good, clever to learn, small, like performing repeated tasks and have a better sense of smell than dogs," said Christophe Cox, the Belgian coordinator of the rat training project.
In April, the rats that had been imported into the United States from Ghana as exotic pets got a dose of bad publicity when it was discovered that the virus that causes monkeypox had likely jumped from them to the prairie dogs with whom they had been sharing cages in pet shops.
Monkeypox was confirmed in 32 people, mainly in Wisconsin, Indiana and Illinois. The illness in humans is not usually fatal but causes rashes, fevers and chills. Most Americans who caught monkeypox got it from infected pet prairie dogs. The importation of the rats, whose Latin name is Cricetomys gambianus, has since been banned.
Cox and his Kenyan wife, Judy, oversee the training of some 300 rats to locate mines by recognizing the smell of dynamite and TNT. The rats are trained in two groups: those in the simulated minefield and the ones trained in the laboratory to smell TNT.
Neighboring Mozambique is the ultimate destination of the rodents trained through the Belgian-funded project run by Apopo, an Antwerp-based research organization. Twelve of the gray-furred animals with prominent snouts are already there.
Although a civil war in the former Portuguese colony ended more than a decade ago, the Mozambican countryside remains studded with land mines.
Farmers in Tanzania's Morogoro district, a lush agricultural region 100 miles west of Dar es Salaam, look on the rats, whose name refers to the pouches in their cheeks for storing food, as pests.
But Cox says they can save lives.
"We haven't heard about this disease outbreak, and we have had no incident of sickness related to the rats here," he said.
Ron Verhagen, the project's chief scientist, is not worried about monkeypox. He says the virus isn't normally carried by the rodents, which can measure as long as 30 inches and weigh up to three pounds.
Some 30 trainers put the rats through their paces in the simulated minefield where anti-personnel and anti-tank mines have no detonators.
"People are happy when I tell them I am working with the rats because they think I will help to eliminate them," project veterinarian Mwambewe Martin said. "But when I tell them I am training them, they don't understand how rats can be trained."
Harnessed rats are hitched to a sliding rail mounted on a metal grid about 3 feet high and 20 feet wide.
Two human handlers roll the grid over a suspected minefield. When a rat scratches and sniffs at a mine, the handler activates a clicker and pulls the rat over to the side by his lead to reward him with a banana bit.
When fully trained, the rats sniff out a mine, then sit and scratch at the spot until they are rewarded with food. A human de-miner destroys the mine. The rats are not heavy enough to detonate active mines.
The rodents also undergo laboratory training to detect TNT, the explosive compound, by digging for TNT "eggs" buried on soil-covered tables.
Judy Cox, the project supervisor, says it's fun working with the rats, although in real conditions, it can be very dangerous.
"You will be following your rats through a minefield ... you have to be 100 percent sure of your rats," she said.
A total of 131 nations have signed a December 1997 treaty banning the use of land mines. The United States, China and Russia are among those that have not.
The International Campaign to Ban Land Mines, winner of the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts in getting the treaty approved, estimates there are at least 100 million land mines deployed worldwide.
At least 30 million have been destroyed since the global ban on the weapons went into force four years ago, campaigners say.
On the Net:
Sokoine University of Agriculture: http://www.suanet.ac.tz/