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Boomtown rats George Nickels
29 Aug
Giant African rats will soon be undertaking an important and dangerous job in Cambodia; locating the millions of unexploded landmines left over after over 30 years of conflict

Cambodia has the undesirable distinction of having the highest number of landmines and unexploded ordnance (UXO) in the world, following decades of internal conflict. The Cambodia–Thailand border has one of the world’s highest concentrations, around two to three million, while the country as a whole had an estimated 26 million explosives dropped on it during the Vietnam War. 

The Cambodia Mine/UXO Victim Information System reports that explosives caused at least 64,314 casualties between 1979 and 2013, of which 19,684 were killed and 44,630 injured.

Now the hazardous task of clearing Cambodia’s landmines is about to gain a new, secret weapon; the African giant pouched rat. A partnership between the Cambodian Mine Action Centre (CMAC) and APOPO – a Belgian NGO that has previously supplied rats to work in similar mine-clearing operations elsewhere in the world, including in Tanzania and Mozambique – recently saw rats arriving in the country to begin playing their part in completing the goal of making Cambodia landmine-free by 2020.

‘The most important reason we work with rats is that they have a very sensitive sense of smell and can be trained to detect TNT, the explosive mostly used in landmines,’ says Kim Warren, Country Programme Director of APOPO Cambodia. ‘They aren’t heavy enough to trigger the mines, they are inexpensive to house and feed, and resistant to tropical diseases.’

The rats are trained to scratch the ground when they smell an unexploded landmine, prompting manual deminers – in this case CMAC staff – to move in with their metal detectors, excavate the area around the explosive, and then thoroughly search the surrounding land. ‘So while the manual deminers get to take credit for actually clearing most of the mines,’ continues Warren, ‘the rats are a big help in finding mine belts and quickly searching areas to find out if any mines are present to start with.’

The rats can dramatically speed up the process of clearing an area, with Warren estimating they can search a 200-square metre area in around 20 minutes, as opposed to up to four days for someone equipped only with a metal detector. ‘The great advantage of rats is that they are fast – thus cheap – to deploy, because they detect only TNT,’ explains Warren, ‘whereas human deminers need to investigate every alert their metal detectors make, whether it be scrap metal, an old coin, or an actual landmine.’

This article was published in the September 2015 edition of Geographical Magazine

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