On my recent trip to Cambodia, I had no idea that landmines were such a problem until I arrived. As Cambodia was plagued with three decades of recent war, there are landmines scattered all across the countryside, abandoned and ready to detonate at any moment. This is clearly a real danger, especially to the farmers, who account for roughly 60% of the Cambodian population and those living in rural areas, who account for nearly 80% of the Cambodian population. An estimated 15,000-20,000 people are killed by landmines each year in Cambodia. The people behind APOPO brought their program from Africa to Cambodia to help with the problem.
APOPO trains and works with African giant pouched rats to help detect and remove landmine threats. This is truly a spectacular idea, as the rats are intelligent, highly trainable, and too small to set off the landmines. The trainers develop a loving and dedicated relationship with their rat partners. These HeroRATS (as they call them) are extremely well cared for and given a specialized diet with regular exercise and much personal care and playtime. They also have weekly care from a dedicated onsite vet. At four weeks, the rats begin to be regularly handled by their trainers and begin training with a treat-reward system. (They love bananas!) First, they train safely with tea eggs filled with the smell of TNT to learn the smell and gradually work their way out to the field with real explosives.
These rats are nocturnal, so they can only be allowed out in for two hours a day in the early morning before it becomes dangerous, so they work quick days and are coated in sunscreen before going out in the field for work. Regardless, they speed up operations considerably. One HeroRAT can search an area the size of a tennis court in 30 minutes- something that would take 4 days without them. Once they find a landmine, they scratch the area to reveal where it is and make their way back to their trainer for a treat.
These rats are treated as heros, as that is what they truly are. They are smart and an integral part of the landmine detection process of Cambodia. They are saving lives every day, and everyone respects the hard work they are doing to save the community.
APOPO works in solely African countries with the exception of Cambodia-the first country they have began work in outside of Africa. Over the years, APOPO and its HeroRATS have detected and destroyed 107,633 landmines, saving the lives of 957,350 people from the threat of explosives.
I think it’s important to realize how intelligent and integral these rats are. They are true heros and another proof that man and animal can respectfully work together in many capacities. I hope this knowledge can help to give rats a better reputation than they currently have, because they really are incredible creatures.