SIAM REAP – Landmines left by 30 years of conflict are still all over Cambodia, serving as a reminder to its people of over three decades of war, and causing tens of thousands of accidents among Cambodians.
The Cambodian government is currently working with Belgian experts in the hope of eventually wiping out its landmines with the help of sniffing—not dogs—but rats.
The Belgian non-government organization APOPO teamed up with the Cambodian Mine Action Centre (CMAC) in a feasibility study on the use of giant rats from Tanzania to detect landmines and unexpected ordinance in countries that have been mined and bombed the most.
Fifteen Gambian pouched rats or African giant pouched rats, as they are also known, are currently being trained in Cambodia for the detection of landmines. They were brought to the province of Siem Reap where the Angkor temples can be found.
The giant rats can grow up to about one meter or three feet in height, and can weigh as much as 1.4 kilograms (3 pounds). The rodents are nocturnal and their ears are sensitive to the sun’s rays, requiring sunscreen as a protection from sunburn.
In the training, a rat gets a piece of fruit as a reward for being able to hunt down explosives and locating a mine. A trained giant rat can cover land about 14 times more than a human can. Its strong sense of smell allows it to easily pick up the scent of TNT.
While the average human takes up to about four days, the giant rat takes only about 20 minutes to locate a landmine. The time it takes for one person includes unnecessary stops when a metal detector beeps to even scrap metal like cans.
The use of the Gambian pouched rats turns out to be more effective with the rodents’ efficient explosive-smelling skills, while costing less, at $6,900 an animal. This is much cheaper than what it would take to conduct training programs for human landmine detectors.
The idea of these giant rodents detecting landmines began in 1997 when Bart Weetjens, APOPO founder, started to breed rats and found that the animals can sense the scent of TNT. The NGO’s efforts, along with that of the Cambodian government, may help wipe out the remaining deathly landmines of Cambodia.