When last in Siam Reap, in the countryside, I placed my foot exactly where the person in front of me had put their foot. Landmines, laid during the ousting of the Khmer Rouge in 1979 and throughout the 80s and 90s, have had, and continue to have, a devastating impact on the people of Cambodia. I didn’t want to be yet another victim. Sadly, over 64,000 casualties and more than 25,000 amputees have been recorded since 1979. It’s been a long, slow and difficult task finding these unexploded devices – which can last 50 years.
Numerous ways have been tried to find and disarm them and these new heroes seem to be the best in many ways, so, in April 2015 15 giant mine-sniffing rats flew into Cambodia, one of the most mine polluted countries in the world.
Before being introduced to these heroes, my reluctant friend and I read most of the well-written signs explaining what we were about to see: by now she was getting enthused and interested to see a skills demonstration by these rats and their handlers.
After arriving from Tanzania, they then spent the rest of the year acclimatising and continuing their training. Cambodians, SokHeng Hul and Thoeun Theap, had spent 6 months at the APOPO training centre near the mountains of Morogoro, Tanzania, learning the science, technology, and of course the practical operation of allowing the rats to detect unexploded ordinances.
The HeroRAT training continued until November 2015, when it was decided the team was ready for the first stage of the accreditation process. They took a Performance Test. This test is designed to show evaluators that they and the handlers were capable of detecting all mines that had been placed in the examination area. Over a one-week period, all the rats were tested and produced a 100% pass rate so were deployed in helping the Cambodian Mine Action Centre (CMAC) deminers in their mine detection work and have since found roughly 500 anti-personnel mines and more than 350 unexploded bombs.
This success rate has no doubt saved many lives and limbs and for many families, enabled them to farm their land without fear and increase productivity.
Further information /sidebar
- APOPO is a global non-profit organization with roots in Belgium that has developed an innovative method using African giant pouched rats, to detect landmines and tuberculosis using their extraordinary sense of smell. They detect only TNT and ignore scrap metal.
- One HeroRAT can search an area the size of a tennis court in 30 minutes – this would take a manual deminer with a metal detector up to four days (depending on the levels of scrap metal present).
- The HeroRATs are too light to set off the landmines and not a single rat has ever died in a minefield.
- The expert rat handlers are trained in basic nursing care and rat first aid. Routine care includes daily observations of individual animals, weekly health inspections and regular prevention treatments for common parasites. Every week a university vet inspects the rats. When necessary, sick or injured rats are interned at the APOPO sickbay.
- Their diet consists of high-quality pet pellets, fresh peanuts, plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, sun-dried sardines and clean water that is regularly infused with extra vitamins and minerals to boost the rats’ immune systems
- On retirement, typically between 7 and 8 years of age, the rats work as long as they are performing well, are happy, and pass their weekly health checks. If a rat decides to stop work, or if its performance has declined, or it is suffering from age-related health problems, it is retired to its home cage. It then continues to receive its usual healthy diet, is regularly taken out to play and exercise, and continues to receive its weekly health checks until it eventually passes away. If a rat is clearly suffering in its old age or from an untreatable disease, it is humanely euthanised.
Want to adopt a rat? Save a limb or a life?