How many of you have dreamed of visiting Siem Reap so that you could catch the sunrise over the reflecting pool at Angkor Wat? Why else visit Siem Reap, right? I went for the rats. And yes, you read that correctly.
Like most people, I visited Cambodia last year to experience the magic of the temples. During that visit, I noticed that in Cambodia, unlike other Southeast Asian countries, there were quite a few people that were missing limbs. This is due to the number of UXO (unexploded ordnance) left over from conflict during the tumultuous 1970s until the late 1990s. In the early 70s, the US bombed Cambodia extensively. Following that, there was a civil war. Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge took over from 1975 to 1979 and then Vietnam invaded. Though the Khmer Rouge had been overthrown by then, they continued to wage guerilla warfare. The landmines were planted during these conflicts.
Cambodia is the most landmine-affected country in the world. Some UXO are designed to kill; some are designed to maim. Some UXO can be seen above the ground; some are buried up to 3 meters below the ground. Farmers and children are the two groups that have been affected the most. There are over 25,000 amputees in Cambodia. Last year alone, 50 were injured.
Landmines are inexpensive to make and lay (from $3 to $75) but expensive to remove (from $300 to $1000) and this is where the Hero Rats of Apopo come in. These rats are brought in from Tanzania, where they receive 9 months of training. They have a highly developed sense of smell (though are mostly blind) and can sniff out bombs buried up to 1 meter below the ground. If a bomb is more than 1 meter below the surface, a person can walk over it without it exploding. Each rat can check the area of a tennis field in 30 minutes. It would take a human 4 days to do the same.
Each rat has two handlers. The field to be checked is divided into zones. The rat handlers stand several meters apart, each holding one end of a guide rope. The rat is tethered to the rope with a harness. The rat follows the rope, sniffing as he goes. If he smells explosives within 50 cm, he scratches the ground. The rats are able to tell the difference between scrap metal and explosives, unlike human deminers. At the APOPO Visitor Center, we were able to observe one of the rats in action. He ignored a partially buried metal object, but when he reached a buried explosive, scratched the ground and partially unearthed it.
After the rat identifies a UXO, experts are brought in to try to remove it. If it cannot be removed safely, it is detonated. How effective are these rats? 100% effective. There have been no further injuries on any field that the rats have cleared. During 2018, the 29 rats have cleared 12 fields containing over 1 million square meters of land. Ten more rats will be delivered from Tanzania at the end of February 2019 and will be sent to the Battambang Province, where 40% of the injuries from landmines come from.
These little heroes work 7 days per week, depending on weather conditions. They are fed a diet of 10 peanuts and 2 bananas per day, but get treats on the weekend (watermelon, apples, corn, and extra bananas). They have saved countless lives and limbs.
Apopo is supported exclusively on donations. If you can’t visit Siem Reap, you can adopt a Hero Rat or donate funds at https://www.apopo.org/en. If you do visit Siem Reap, by all means, go to Angkor Wat, but spend an hour visiting the Hero Rats – you won’t regret it.