APOPO Mine Detection Operations

The basics of landmines

A landmine is an explosive device which is buried or placed on the ground. They were developed in the 1800s during the American Civil War but their use became widespread during the Second World War and use continued in many conflicts since. Landmines are generally designed to target either people or vehicles which pass over or close to the device. Anti-personnel landmines are a particularly nasty type of weapon because they were designed to injure troops rather than kill them – knowing that more people would be required to rescue a wounded soldier. But as they are indiscriminate weapons, they are absolutely unable to distinguish between enemy troops during a conflict and innocent civilians long after the conflict ends. They can remain armed and dangerous for decades after a conflict. 

Alongside landmines lie unexploded ordnance (UXO) – weapons that failed to detonate as intended, and explosive remnants of war (ERW) – weapons and explosives left over after a conflict, these are also responsible for many deaths and injuries.

“The problem: antipersonnel mines are indiscriminate weapons that injure and kill civilians in every corner of the globe, every day. Lying in wait for their victims, they don’t recognize ceasefires, and continue to kill and maim long after the end of conflicts. They instil fear in communities and are a lethal barrier to development”

International Campaign to Ban Landmines Problem Statement

Landmines prevent people in many parts of the world from travelling safely to school, to the market, to health centres or to water sources because paths, fields and villages pose threats to their life and limb. They also significantly hamper agriculture and development, making it difficult for villages to live freely.

Landmines (and UXO and ERW) are responsible for an average of 15,000 to 20,000 deaths per year leaving many thousands more badly injured. Other terms you might come across include :Explosive Ordnance Disposal” and “Bomb Disposal”; these are terms that are usually used in military or police settings.

Campaigns to Rid the World of Landmines 

In March 1999, after years of global campaigning by the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), the Ottawa Convention, also known as the Mine Ban Treaty came into effect, aiming to eliminate anti-personnel landmines around the world. Each signatory of the Treaty is expected to destroy all stockpiled anti personnel landmines, and currently, only about 5 states are yet to complete the stockpile destruction. Not all countries have signed up to the Treaty, most notably the USA, Russia and China, however there is now a significant global taboo around using landmines that their wide scale use has been made far less likely (by countries, though not necessarily by smaller, non-state groups). The other, far more challenging part of the Treaty is to remove all landmines that the nation has placed. Each nation becomes responsible for clearing the landmines which they laid, and the Treaty calls for cooperation and assistance from nations in a position to help others with aiding mine victims, providing demining assistance and helping with mine destruction. 

According to UNICEF’s page on the Legacy of land-mines, there are still an estimate of 110 million landmines buried in 64 countries around the world. As one Khmer Rouge General put it, a landmine is a perfect soldier: “Ever courageous, never sleeps, never misses”, not a pleasant thought, but it does seem fairly accurate.

Landmines have historically been shockingly cheap to make – some costing as little as $3 to lay, and they were made in mind-boggling quantities. For various reasons, they are far more expensive to clear and there is significant room for innovation – this is where APOPO comes in.

Landmine Free 2025 is a campaign to re-energize international support for landmine clearance and to finish the job that has been started. The website states that 33 states and territories have been cleared, but 58 remain contaminated.

International Mine Clearance

Mine action is the global movement involved in tackling the challenges posed by landmines, with 4th April dedicated as International Day for Mine Awareness and Assistance in Mine Action.

The UN Mine Action Service (UNMAS) is the coordination body and has produced the UN Mine Action Strategy 2019-2023. UNMAS also undertakes and funds mine action projects all over the world.

E-MINE is the central UN mine action website, with links to a huge amount of other resources and information.

Methods of mine clearance

Mine detection options vary in complexity, accuracy, cost and time.

Probably the highest complexity technique is the use of Ground Penetrating Radar which uses pulses of high frequency Radio Frequency waves to cause echoes from things buried in the ground (including landmines but also any other solid object of a similar size. The frequency of the signal dictates both the size of the object that can be detected, and the depth to which the detection can be made (and sadly those objectives directly compete with each other so the optimum frequency changes depending on the situation. The technology is complex, expensive and requires significant training to be able to understand what the readings on the screen mean.

Manual Clearance with a metal detector is a very time-consuming technique because the detector will signal every time the user sweeps it over a metal object and there can be hundreds of false alarms for every mine found using this method. But it is cheap and readily available technology. 

Most Mine Detection Dogs are used in the field to directly search for landmines in place. It gives a much more accurate picture of where the mines are buried compared to the REST method, but it is more resource intensive method. 

There is another Mine Detection method used with dogs called REST (Remote Explosive Scent Tracing), or Filter-search, where air from an area thought to be contaminated with landmines is vacuumed into a filter that captures molecules from the air and then the filter is presented to the REST dog to see if any explosive molecules were in the air sample. This method requires a dog to be extremely sensitive to the explosive molecule as there may be very few in the sample. 

APOPO Minefield Operations with the HeroRATS

There is an excellent explanation of the procedure for clearing mines to return land back to the communities on the APOPO website – check it out here

APOPO Mine Action teams have worked in 8 countries and are currently operational in Angola, Cambodia and Mozambique

APOPO joined Mozambican Mine Action operations in 2003, alongside traditional techniques including metal detector operations Mozambique declared free of landmines in 2015. APOPO located 13,274 mines, clearing 11 million m2 of land which could be returned to the commmunities. 

A BBC Earth documentary gives a really good overview of APOPO and its methodology on YouTube here.

Rat welfare is really important and so HeroRAT minefield clearance activities are only performed in the early morning before it gets too hot. The rats work in 20-minute blocks and they clear 1-2 minefield boxes and then have a rest before clearing one more box. Every third box is rechecked by a second rat as a safety/quality check – but never has the check rat found a landmine that had been missed by the first rat. Using this method, working in 2-3 pairs, the APOPO minefield clearance team can clear up to 300m2 per day.