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 200sqm each day, according to Lily Shallom, Communications Officer for Apopo, a Belgian non-profit 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 [200sqm] 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.
Apopo – who have successfully cleared hundreds of thousands of mines in African countries such as Tanzania, 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 due to the rats.
Apopo calls their trained rodents HeroRATs, with the animals significantly speeding up conventional landmine detection methods using metal detectors.
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 more than one million square metres of mined land, improving the lives of 2,000 people,” said Benjamin Carrichon, Apopo’s HeroRATs project manager in Siem Reap.
He said 35 Tanzanian rats were currently working in Cambodia, finding approximately 300 landmines and unexploded ordnances last year alone. This year, Apopo will add 15 African rats – which are chosen over their local counterparts as they are larger and have a keener sense of smell – to work on their new project in Preah Vihear province.
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 failed. 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 help gain donations from the public.
“We hope to inform people about landmine issues in Cambodia and across the world. If people want to support our work, you can buy a t-shirt or adopt a rat for one year for $60.”
“After you adopt a rat, you will get 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 giant male from Tanzania weighs just over a kilogram and is currently serving the community in Siem Reap province’s Sre Nouy commune.