The little country of Cambodia, located in South East Asia, has suffered three decades of war. This has taken a severe toll on its citizens. But even though the battles have finally ended, the casualties continue. The victims are often curious young boys who explore the countryside and discover one of the many existing landmines planted decades ago.
The Cambodian Mine Action Authority, established in late 2000 to regulate mine activities, estimates that these demining operations cost a staggering $30 million per year. But the cost of lives and limbs is even more staggering. The Cambodian Mine Victim Information Service has recorded 19,684 people killed by mines since 1979. They also have one of highest rates of amputees in the world, with approximately 40,000 sufferers.
Currently, there are four main demining organizations working in Cambodia – The Cambodian Mine Action Center (CMAC), the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF), The HALO Trust, and the Mines Advisory Group (MAG). At the current rate of funding and activity, it could take up to another 20 years to clear the mines from Cambodia’s soil.
It is extremely dangerous work to locate and disable landmines. They are buried beneath the soil, so they are an invisible threat. Since their housing is typically made of plastic, a metal detector will not find them. Unfortunately, there are no maps or charts to indicate where they are buried.
But now, Cambodia is getting a “little” help from an unusual source. Rats! Gambian Pouched Rats to be precise. These rodents were deployed to Cambodia from Tanzania in April by a Belgian non-profit organization, APOPO, to help clear these deadly mines. APOPO has used the rodents for mine-clearing projects in several countries, including Angola, Mozambique, Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam.
One of the biggest advantages of using rats is that landmines pose no danger to them because the rats are not heavy enough to trigger an explosion. These clever rats are trained from the time they are 4 weeks old to sniff out TNT. When they find it, they scratch the ground at the site.
The team of 15 rats and 18 handlers are still in training mode, but these rats are showing great promise. It takes one of these rats a matter of minutes to find a mine. It could take a human days, and it would be extremely dangerous work. One false move and a limb or a life could be lost.
A typical work day for these rats will find them in a training field, fitted with a harness which is connected by a leash to a matrix that confines the rat to a specific section of the field being searched. The rat sniffs around within this area and reacts when it gets a whiff of dynamite by digging at the target spot. The rats are then rewarded with a bite of banana.
Deploying these little bomb sniffers and their handlers in high numbers could drastically reduce the time needed to remove the deadly mines in Cambodia’s killing fields.
For their handlers, the rats are more than bomb detectors. “They are not just rats, they are like my brothers,” said 41-year-old handler Meas Chamroeun.