By Sunita Mager
For most people, they are a nuisance. They are big, scary and harry. They have a long tail, eyes that glow in the dark and are notorious for nibbling on anything and everything. Some even think them a PEST!
In Cambodia, rats are considered just another ordinary animal. People live with them in somewhat close proximity- and as with frogs, you might even find them cooking on the grill in local neighborhoods.
But did you know that rats are actually extraordinary intelligent animals? APOPO, a non-profit organization registered in Belgium, train Gambian Giant Rats – Mine Detection Rats (MDR) better known as heroRATs, to detect landmines by using their amazing sense of smell. Apopo currently does demining work in Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Angola, Colombia and since 2015, Apopo started operating in Siem Reap, Cambodia. The heroRATs are doing an amazing job and in October 2017, an Apopo Visiting Center will be open to the public.
We spoke to Benjamin Carrichon, Project Manager at Apopo in Siem Reap, who gave us great insight of their mission here.
What does Apopo do?
Apopo uses HeroRATs to save lives by detecting landmines and tuberculosis. Our headquarter is in Tanzania, but in Cambodia, we focus on landmines only. The mine operations are carried out in the Srey Nour Area of Siem Reap, where the land there has not been used in almost 30 years.
Gambian Giant rats (HeroRATs) are ideal for this task. The are very lightweight which makes them ideal for finding landmines. They simply can’t set them off, but they can easily detect them. Additionally, these giant rats have an incredible sense of smell. So when they are out in the field, they ignore scrap metal that can be found under ground, but are faster in sniffing out and detecting landmines than conventional metal detectors. One rat can scan an area the size of a tennis court in 30 minutes. The average time it takes a team with metal detectors is about 4 days.
To demonstrate how the rats are trained and how it all works, check out this video.
How many landmines in Siem Reap have been demined so far?
Since 2015, we’ve been able to really make an impact in a short time due to the growing partnership we have with Cambodia Mine Action Center (CMAC). Last year, the rats helped clear 573,256 square meters across seven minefields. It’s great because now the families who inhabit the land are immediately able to grow crops and look into a sustainable future for themselves.
How does Apopo care for the rats?
Animal welfare is our biggest priority. Each of our rats is a highly valuable asset. Our rats are really well taken care of. They get the best nutrition, daily exercise, stimulation and enrichment, and loving attention from our team.
When do rats retire and what happens to them after?
Some of the heroRATs have been demining for long enough now that some of our rats have reached retirement age, which is typically when they reach between 7 and 8 years of age. We allow them to work as long as they are performing well, still feel like working and pass weekly health checks. We notice that the rats are generally enthusiastic to get to work but when they are growing old, some simply don’t feel like getting out of their cage to work anymore. If that happens or when a rat’s performance has declined or it is not healthy enough to continue working, the rat is retired to its home cage. When they are retired to their cages, they continue to receive a healthy diet, are regularly taken out to play and exercise, and continue to receive weekly health checks. If a rat is clearly suffering in its old age or from an untreatable disease, it is humanely euthanized.
What will the new visiting center showcase?
The visiting center is scheduled to open in October and is a space for visitors of all ages to learn more about our mission here in Cambodia. We will provide information boards, showcase different demined landmines, the rats in their living environment, a visitor’s cafe and gift shop, and much more. In addition, we provide the opportunity to meet and speak with a deminer and rat handler. The center will help visitors understand the methodology we use to demine land and therefore bring opportunities to local farmers and we are eager to share our story to the public, to raise awareness, to educate them.