SIEM RIEP (Khmer Times) – Rodents with an unpleasant reputation are preparing for a life-saving job at the Siem Reap training center of Belgian demining NGO APOPO.
Ten giant rats that were trained at its research center in Tanzania arrived in Cambodia last month and are currently getting used to the climate and undergoing performance tests. The rats are still “a bit skittish,” explained APOPO’s communications manager James Pursey.
“This is also the first time many of the trainers have worked with such big rats,” he said, “so we are easing everyone into it slowly.”
Two Cambodian staff members were trained at the Tanzanian center and they are training their colleagues here. APOPO plans to deploy 180 specialists to work alongside the Cambodian Mine Action Centre (CMAC) in six districts of Siem Reap and Oddar Meanchey provinces.
This follows a deal with the government in November 2013 to let it begin training African giant pouched rats on Cambodian soil.
Why African Rats?
The cat-sized rats have gained popularity in Africa over the past four years, sniffing out thousands of mines as well as unexploded ordnance (UXO) in Mozambique and Angola.
APOPO, established in 1998, has also certified 49 aptly nicknamed “HeroRATs” to detect tuberculosis in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Using positive reinforcement, food treats, and training with a clicking sound, the rats can learn to identify TNT in the ground or the smell of TB in infected sputum.
As well as being abundant, rats have an exceptional sense of smell, are highly intelligent and easily trained.
The African giant pouched rat is relatively calm and sociable, enjoys repetitive tasks, and lives for up to eight years. It is also efficient – in 20 minutes a single rat can detect landmines in an area that would take a human de-miner five days to cover.
Although larger than most rat species, even APOPO’s heaviest male rats weighs less than 1.5 kilograms. Pressure-activated landmines typically require three times that weight to set off. To date, no de-mining rats have been injured or killed in minefields.
CMAC has used mine-sniffing dogs in the past, but they are much more expensive than rats: trained mine detecting dogs cost upwards of $10,000 each.
Funding from Germany
The APOPO-CMAC collaboration is funded by the German Federal Foreign Office. The value of the grant has not been made public, but last year the office pledged almost $400,000 to APOPO’s fourth year of demining activities on the Thai side of the border. Last month it pledged an additional $360,000 to the NGO’s demining efforts in central Vietnam.
Landmines remain a major threat in Cambodia, particularly along the border with Thailand where the K5 belt has one of the densest concentrations of landmines in the world. The 600-kilometer belt contains an estimated 2 million to 3 million landmines.
Mines and UXO have killed more than 19,000 Cambodians and injured more than 45,000 since 1979.
At least eight people have been killed by mines so far this year, according to CMAC.
On May 31, a farmer in Oddar Meanchey province found 40 live UXO while plowing his field.
On May 21, 28-year-old Bun Borei was seriously injured when his tractor ran over an anti-tank mine in Battambang province.
On May 5, another farmer in Battambang was killed instantly when his tractor hit a landmine. On May 3, a 14-year-old boy was killed and three others injured in Preah Vihear province after the UXO they were transporting in a cart exploded.
According to CMAC, landmine related causalities rose 39 percent last year over 2013, including 21 deaths and 38 amputations.