IN RURAL Siem Reap province, rats dare to tread where no person will, as these hairy little heroes place their lives on the line each day for the good of the local community.
The rodents are the most important members of a special team, leading demining efforts in the Kingdom, with their keen sense of smell giving them the ability to sniff out deadly landmines that still litter rural Cambodia.
The rat team rises at 4am, arriving at the minefields to start work at the crack of dawn at 6am. The rodents are able to clear boxes measuring 300-400sqm each day, according to Lily Shallom, Communications Officer for APOPO, a global non-profit with Belgian roots that trains African giant pouched rats to detect landmines in Cambodia.
“Once at the minefield, everyone gets their protective gear on and goes on to the minefield. Two rat handlers per rat cover the prepared [100sqm] boxes. The rats are used to quickly identify where the landmines are buried and then they can rest in the shade as they are nocturnal and don’t do well in heat, so they need sleep,” she told The Post. "Then our manual deminers go in to dig up the landmines and other explosive remnants of war so they can be destroyed safely.”
APOPO – who have successfully cleared hundreds of thousands of mines in African countries such as Angola and Mozambique since 1997 – have been working with the Cambodian Mine Action Centre (CMAC) in Siem Reap province since 2015.
CMAC now uses rats in their demining efforts and have achieved remarkable results. At the signing of a fresh, year-long memorandum of understanding between the organisations last month, CMAC said they anticipated they would be able to clear 116km of mined land this year using various methods, including rats.
APOPO calls their trained rodents HeroRATs, with the animals significantly speeding up conventional landmine detection methods in various areas.
For instance, a mine detection rat can check the area of a tennis court in just 30 minutes, a job that would take a deminer with a metal detector up to four days.
“So far, we are operating in Siem Reap and we are also starting a new project in Preah Vihear province near the Thai border. Last year, we cleared 1.1 million square metres of mined land, freeing approximately 8,400 people out of the risk of explosives and allowing 804 families to safely cultivate their land,” said Benjamin Carrichon, Apopo’s Visitor Center in Siem Reap.
He said 28 Tanzanian rats are currently working in Cambodia, found 555 landmines and unexploded ordnances last year alone. This year, APOPO will add 30 African rats – which are chosen over their local counterparts as they are larger and have a keener sense of smell – to expand their work in the existing locations and to explore new opportunities of opening another operational site in North-Western Provinces of Cambodia.
According to APOPO, no rats have ever died as a result of their detection work.
“Since we started our mission [in Africa] 20 years ago, the rats have never missed a landmine. They can smell TNT faster and more reliably than detective objects can locate them,” Carrichon said.
In 2017, APOPO opened a visitor centre in Siem Reap town to promote awareness of their work and rally support for the program from the general public.
“We hope to inform people about landmine issues in Cambodia and across the world. If people want to support our work, they can visit our website, you can buy a t-shirt or adopt a rat for one year for $60."
“After you adopt a rat, you will get a welcome pack, monthly updates on how your rat is raised and what they are doing on the landmine field,” Carrichon said, adding that they also accept online donations.
Magawa is one such rat up for adoption. The five-year-old rodent from Tanzania weighs just over a kilogram and is currently serving the community in Siem Reap province’s Sre Nouy commune.
APOPO’s Siem Reap visitor centre is open from Monday to Saturday between 8:30am and 5:30pm. Contact the centre via email ([email protected]) or phone (08159 9237).