Rats are Cambodia’s latest weapon against the country’s remaining landmines and unexploded ordinance. Words and photography by Sam Walker.
Meet Cambodia’s latest heroes. They’re doing one of the most dangerous jobs in the Kingdom of Wonder and they’re being paid peanuts – literally.
That’s because APOPO Cambodia’s latest recruits are rats, and these little heroes love peanuts.
They might be unlikely heroes but these eight animals are the newest members of the organisation’s Mine Detecting Rat team, tasked with sniffing out explosives to uncover deadly landmines and unexploded ordnance that still litter Cambodia.
They bring the number of rats in the Cambodian programme to 20. Another 16 are waiting in Tanzania for approval from authorities before being sent to the country to carry out their life-saving work.
The day AsiaLIFE visited, the intelligent rodents were being put through their paces in a series of operational tests in APOPO’s training field at the Cambodian Mine Action Centre on the outskirts of Siem Reap. After several months of intensive training in Cambodia, they passed the all-important test, qualifying them to enter a live minefield. Since then, they have been put to work.
The exercise includes a blind test where the location of the explosives is unknown.
The rats, attached to a harness and tape measure, work in a grid pattern between the handlers, who stand on each side of the field.
It covers a width of 50 centimetres on each pass. The rats scratch the surface when they sniff out explosives. Assessors record the exact location and enter it into a computer to determine the rats’ accuracy.
In other tests, they work with a click and reward system. When they identify an explosive, they hear a click and receive food – usually peanuts or a banana.
The rats are imported from Tanzania, where Belgian NGO APOPO is headquartered. The organisation breeds the giant African pouched rat because of their long lifespan and resilience, and trains them for use in humanitarian programmes, such as landmine clearance and tuberculosis detection. It operates in seven countries, including Cambodia.
APOPO Cambodia programme officer Soeun Prom says the have proven to be are safer, quicker and more cost effective than manual detection.
“So far, we have cleared more than 750,000 square metres [of land],” Prom says. “If we compare that to manual detection, one rat can clear 200 square metres in 20 minutes.”
In contrast, he says using people to clear 200 square metres manually can take one to four days, depending on how many objects are buried in the ground.
While the manual detectors show every piece of metal, which have to be excavated and checked, he says the rats only scent the TNT. “We’re using rats to speed up the work,” he adds.
He says 10 minefields have already been cleared in the Srae Nouy area of Warin Dristrict, north east of Siem Reap. Most of the district was hit by anti-tank mines and Prom says even in areas locals have been using for 10 or 15 years, people are still killed and injured by the explosives.
Mine Detection Rat supervisor Thoeun Theap spent three months in Tanzania learning the ropes and trains APOPO’s Cambodian team.
He says the rats are low cost – they eat only one banana or 20 peanuts per day and have a variety of other fruit, grains and fish to enjoy on weekends.
“We weigh the rats twice a week,” he says, adding this is to maintain an optimum weight to ensure they are healthy and do not get too heavy to carry out their brave task on top form.
APOPO’s first rats were imported to Cambodia in April 2015. They received initial training in Tanzania and then continued training in Cambodia until January 2016.
Many people were sceptical about using the rats, including Prom.
“Then we see their ability in the teams and in the mine field,” he says. “We see that the rat has become the most important.”
Dogs are also used for landmine detection but APOPO has found some advantages with the rats. They don’t bond with their handlers as closely as dogs so are flexible to work with a variety of handlers. They are easier and much cheaper to look after and, weighing around one kilogram, they are too light to set off any landmines.
Construction is underway on APOPO’s new Visitor Centre, which is expected to open in September. Its aim is to highlight the work APOPO is doing and will tell the story of landmines in Cambodia – the history, the impact on communities and lives and how to remove them.
A minefield demonstration station will also be in place where visitors can use metal detectors to find mines. Demonstrations of the rats at work will also take place.
APOPO is an organisation working to clear land and return it to locals to use. It relies on donations and funding. For more information or to adopt a heroRAT visit www.apopo.org.