During the Vietnam War and the Khmer Rouge (a communist party who ruled Cambodia in the 1970s) genocidal regime in Cambodia, a large number of bombs were scattered throughout Cambodia. One area named the K5 belt is the most landmine contaminated area in the world with up to 2,400 mines per square kilometer. Tens of thousands of people live in close proximity to land mines and are required to go near or on them for daily tasks such as farming. There are an average of 100 landmine accidents per year, adding to the statistic that Cambodia has the largest population of amputees in the world. It is not uncommon for Cambodian hospitals to be overwhelmed by landmine victims in need of artificial limbs. In an attempt to quicken the process of clearing the 4 to 6 million landmines across Cambodia, organizations running the operations have recently hired new help in the form of African giant pouched rats.
The rats chosen for these jobs are highly skilled at sniffing out TNT. The organization APOPO, which works with the majority of the mine sniffing rats, requires them to go through a rigorous training program before being allowed on site. This program wires the rats’ brains to connect finding TNT with positive rewards. When the rat correctly sniffs TNT underground, handlers click a clicker and give the rat a treat such as a piece of banana. The rat is attached to a string which is held by a handler or tied to something. The rat can move around freely in one enclosed area at a time before moving to a new location. After up to 12 months of training, the rats are ready to get to work.
As opposed to other methods of detection, rats have a surprisingly high number of advantages. Dogs are often used for tasks like this and like dogs rats have an incredibly keen nose and when trained can sniff out very specific scents. African giant pouched rats are also currently being used to sniff out tuberculosis in countries in Africa. When it comes to mine detection, rats are both cheaper and lighter than dogs, meaning they are less likely to step on a bomb and set it off; they weigh only 1-3 pounds on average. In densely mined areas, metal detectors are used, but in less dense areas metal detectors very often provide false alarms. Because rats are able to search directly for TNT and not the bomb’s metal shell, there are fewer misleading finds.
Branded as HERO rats, the rats are usually given hero’s names such as “Harry Potter” and each works about 8 years before retiring and living its remaining years with fellow HERO rats. Because there have been some conspiracies and controversies (related to wrongfully invading and stealing land) surrounding government run operations to clear the mines, private organizations such as APOPO are providing a much welcomed demilitarization of the process. The rats only add to the easing of communities. Darcie DeAngelo of Binghamton University claims that “the rats humanized the de-miners in a way that demilitarized them. When they [the villagers] see the rat with a soldier, it’s more of this kind of absurdity…It undermines the kind of villainous characterization of the de-miners for the villagers.”
So far, a tenth of the contaminated terrain has been cleared, and APOPOs rats have found about 700 mines since 2016. Hopefully, the rats will be able to continue to assist in clearing the remaining landmines in Cambodia and can have even larger implications on the future with their impressive detecting abilities.