The RAT-ical New Way of Clearing Land Mines in Cambodia

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.

Rat called Magawa awarded prestigious gold medal for Cambodia landmine  detection
African giant pouched rat

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. 

Mine clearing rats at 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.

Climate Change Destroying Patagonian Ice Fields

Climate change is hitting Patagonia, a region covering the southern portions of Argentina and Chile, hard. Although the Patagonian landscape contains a diverse range of forests, deserts, and grasslands,  the dense Patagonian ice fields atop the Andes Mountains are most endangered from global warming.

According to NOAA’s 2019 Global Climate Summary, the combined land and ocean temperatures have been increasing at an average rate of 0.13°F per decade since 1880. These temperatures have been rising at a greater rate in recent years, as the temperature has been increasing at an average rate of 0.32°F since 1980. The rapid rise in temperature has led to the rapid melting of the ice fields, and contributed to global sea level rise. Just in 2019, Chile’s 12,000 square kilometer Southern Patagonia Ice Field split in two, alarming scientists as more of the ice breaks away.

Glacier in Chile, lost 66% of ice mass since 1953

Outside of Antarctica, the Patagonian ice fields are the largest mass of ice in the southern hemisphere. Over 99% of all tropical glaciers are located in the Andes. At the current rate of melting, it is projected that between  78% and 97%  of glacial ice mass will be lost by the end of the century. This poses a larger problem to communities, specifically communities in the Andean highlands of Chile, Bolivia, and Peru, who depend on glacial meltwater as a clean source of water both for drinking and for agriculture. Glacial meltwater has contributed to 61% of the water supply in La Paz, Bolivia and 67% of the water supply in Huaraz, Peru

Local residents also fear that the loss of glaciers will lead to a loss in tourism. Thousands of people travel to Patagonia and the Andes to hike and take in the beautiful scenery. One local resident and owner of an adventure tourism agency, Luciana Juarez, says, “the receding glaciers are causing ice fields to develop large crevasses that make mountaineering expeditions too dangerous.” But when asked what should be done to help prevent such a future, another local said somberly, “There is no return, I think, because the climate has already changed.”

Photographer Cristian Donoso is making it his mission to capture the devastating effects of climate change in Patagonia. Following in the footsteps of Alberto de Agostini, who left behind over 11,000 photos of the Patagonian landscape, Donoso is recreating de Agostini’s photographs over 100 years later. Donoso calls his project “Ice Postcards”. Donoso so far has found the exact locations of 10 of de Agostini’s images and recreated them at the same time of year in order to create the same seasonal conditions. The difference is startling. One photo in particular shows the Negri glacier that de Agostini took over a century ago. Donoso’s photo merely shows a small fraction of the same glacier. Donoso’s hope with “Ice Postcards” is that he can showcase the severity of this issue to those who can’t see it firsthand. Donoso believes that “No one will fight to protect things that they aren’t aware of”.

de Agostini’s photo of the Negri glacier in Patagonia (left) and Donoso’s photo of the Negri glacier in Patagonia (right)

So what can be done to save the Patagonian icefields? The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization recommends  increasing  support for science-based policy decisions. But following the current trends, the future of the Patagonian icefields is grim. Many of the recommendations are focused on adapting to a new normal. Local governments should create preventative measures and early warning systems for natural disasters as the glaciers melt away. Updated building regulations are essential to reducing devastation from future flooding and mudslides. An increased understanding of water demand and water use as well as good water governance is crucial in order to avoid carelessly running out of the limited water supply. Although the future for the Patagonian icefields are bleak, it should be used as a warning globally for what is to come if climate change is not controlled.