PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — There are currently 56 countries and four territories around the world that still have leftover landmines and explosives from past wars. Though buried underground, they are still active and potentially deadly. Even more, they have been hindering economic progression.
Countries in North Africa like Tanzania, Mozambique, and Angola, as well as those in eastern Asia such as Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos are seeing the negative effects. Each year, more than 10 people are either killed or maimed in each region.
In total, 64,000 people have been harmed or killed, according to the Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor.
Cambodia’s government believes that around six million explosive devices or landmines are dotted around the countryside. The country has the highest rate per capita of amputees in the world at 25,000 cases in total.
The threat of lethal explosives also shrinks the acreage of land accessible to farmers, which hurts the agriculture sector there.
Bart Weetiens has come up with a solution: rats. In October of 1995, he began a Belgian nonprofit called Apopo that trains rats to detect explosives and landmines. The rodents proved to be a valuable weapon with a keen sense of smell that can discover TNT in amounts as little as just one ounce.
These critters are small enough to not detonate the devices they are searching for and are faster and more accurate than metal detectors. They search for the TNT in explosives, not the metal fragments. Rats have an advantage over dogs as well. They do not bond with a single owner and are able to work alongside anyone.
“They are very good,” says Hulsok Heng, a supervisor at Apopo. “You see this 200 square meter? They clear in only 30 minutes or 35 minutes. If you compare that to a deminer, maybe two days or three days.”
Hulsok has been working for more than 20 years to find an effective method to locate and safely detonate landmines and explosives.
Rats are ubiquitous all over the world, so they can be locally sourced at a low cost. It takes about $6,500 to train each rat, says James Pursey, an associate of the organization. They live for up to eight years in captivity and are trained with a repetitive reward method. Once rats locate a landmine, they are rewarded with food.
The organization set up a breeding and training program in Cambodia in April 2015 in collaboration with the Cambodia Mine Action Center. Traditionally, people in Cambodia do not like rats and, at first, the practice seemed bizarre. But Apopo and its rats have been producing impressive results.
In all, the nonprofit has eliminated 56,317 landmines and other explosives, opened up 23,275,761 square meters for locals, and liberated 914,452 people from the danger of explosives. In 1996, explosives killed 3,047 people. In 2013, that number fell to just 134 people — a record low.
Apopo currently has 255 rats in their program and 550 staffers working for local operations. Heng Rattana is the director of the Cambodian Mine Action Center (CMAC). She believes that rats boost their mission to clear Cambodia’s countryside, making their work quicker, safer and more accurate.
– Lillian Sickler