Cambodia’s Superhero Rats
As the first rays of the sun reach across the fields outside Siem Reap in the north of Cambodia, a highly trained team prepares for another day of life-saving work. Every day, they apply their intensive training and unique skills to detect landmines that have remained hidden just below the surface of fields and roads across Cambodia for decades. This team of specialists all have one thing in common: they’re all rodents.
Maynard, Victoria, Cletus and eleven other African giant pouched rats are NGO APOPO’s most effective mine clearers. 200 square metres would take a human up to four days to clear, but Maynard can do it in just twenty minutes!
The secret is the rats’ highly refined sense of smell. Originally applied in Africa to detect tuberculosis, the rats’ superior olfactory gifting allows them to smell the explosives used in landmines’ detonation devices with one-hundred percent accuracy, and unlike their human counterparts, their light weight means that it is impossible for them to trigger the mines.
During their months of intensive training, the rats are trained to scratch at the ground when they smell explosives below the surface.
They are then rewarded with their favourite treats – bananas and peanuts – before carrying on with their work.
When I went to visit the rats in their training facility on the outskirts of Siem Reap, they were just completing their final week of training before moving out to a live field where villagers were living amongst the mines. Men, women and children have to walk along a narrow path that is the only safe way into or out of the village.
When I was young, my grandmother owned a pet store, and I spent many an hour playing in the shop among mice, rats, fish and kittens. The one thing I was well aware of was a unique odour that seems to be inseparable from rodents, so I was amazed that in the room where the rats spend the majority of their time, there was not even the slightest hint of that smell. As the rats are so valuable to the mine-clearing work being done by APOPO, they are cared for meticulously.
The rats’ cages are cleaned and disinfected daily. They even make fresh wood shavings for the rats to curl up in at the end of a long morning’s work.
The rats are weighed every Tuesday and Thursday as a part of a systematic health monitoring program.
Of course working alongside the rats are a dedicated team of humans. Every morning before dawn they leave their dorms – that also serve as a temporary office while they wait for a new facility to be finished – to work with the rats on the fields.
Rats must complete their training with one-hundred percent accuracy or they cannot be allowed onto a live minefield. Training includes a number of decoys to ensure it is the mine explosives they are responding to.
The workers live, work, eat and cook together, so there is a real sense of community among the APOPO workers.
And the best thing about the rats being nocturnal is that they will only work until mid-morning, which means that once the paperwork is completed, workers are free to recharge their batteries before the next morning’s early start.
For more information about APOPO and its Hero Rats – both in Cambodia and abroad – visit https://www.apopo.org/en/