What is APOPO?
The APOPO Cambodia Mine Action program began in 2015, and now the APOPO Visitor Center gives travelers to Siem Reap the chance to see the work that they do up close and personal. APOPO is a Belgium non-profit that for years has been training rats to detect landmines and tuberculosis not only in Cambodia but around the world. These not ordinary rats, however — they are heroes. The HeroRATS at the APOPO Visitor Center are Cricetomys Ansorgei, or African giant pouched rats. They play an incredibly important role in aiding in the removal of landmines in Cambodia.
The Aftermath of the Vietnam War
Over 60 countries worldwide are contaminated with hidden landmines. In Cambodia alone, 26 million sub-munitions were dropped during the Vietnam War. Because of this, the country has the highest ratio of mine amputees per capita in the world. This greatly prohibits the rural communities of Siem Reap to continue their livelihood, which normally involves some type of agricultural work.
How are people meant to sustain crops and livestock when they live in fear of stepping on a landmine? Sadly, many innocent Khmer people have experienced this and live as amputees trying to navigate their world after being the victim of a tragic and horrible accident. These people simply cannot wait for normal methods of mine detection to ensure safety, which is why APOPO HeroRATS, or mine detection rats (MDR), are so important.
Training a HeroRAT
It takes nine months to fully train an APOPO HeroRAT to detect landmines and, it all begins when a rat is about four weeks old. Fret not, animal lovers, as these rats, though working hard, receive excellent care all the while. The rats actually originate from Africa, and during their training, they receive regular exercise, a healthy diet, a weekly visit from a vet and onsite animal behaviorist, and personal attention from their trainers. They even have scheduled playtime!
The soon to be HeroRATS are taught what is referred to as click and scent training. When the rats hear a click, they are given a piece of food, normally a banana or peanut. They also eat rodent pellets. They only hear the click, however, when they get close to a tea egg that contains the scent of explosives (otherwise known as TNT). If they go to a tea egg that is TNT-negative, no clicking sound is made and the rat doesn’t receive any treats. This helps them distinguish between the two and to learn to only notify their handler when an egg is TNT-positive. This sounds like a tentative process, but APOPO’S HeroRATS are surprisingly intelligent and easy to train.
Once the rats are familiar with the scent and the scent discrimination process, these same tea-eggs are buried in soil and put into a more natural environment, making it harder for the rats to detect. Then, the rats are harnessed and attached with a rope to two handlers feet. The harness makes it possible for the rat to go back and forth between a space and diligently check an entire area. They work in outdoor soil trays first which will later help them once they are out in the real fields.
Once a HeroRAT is properly trained, it can search an area about the size of a tennis court in 30 minutes. This would take a person with a metal detector up to four days. The mine detection rats (MDR) scratch above the earth once finding a landmine. They are also taught during the scent discrimination process to ignore scrap metal, which saves a significant amount of time.
Not only do they cut the search time down drastically, but they are also too light to actually set off any of the landmines, making it 100 percent safe for these rats to go searching the otherwise dangerous outskirts of Cambodia. This particular type of rat only weighs anywhere from 1 to 1.3 kilograms.
The APOPO Impact in Cambodia
Since it’s opening in 2015, the team in Preah Vihear and Siem Reap provinces, together with the Cambodian Mine Action Centre, cleared 1,146,136 square meters of land and destroyed 285 landmines and other dangerous items. This directly benefited about 3,682 people.
At the APOPO Visitor Center, the HeroRATS detect landmines but as mentioned previously, there are HeroRATS that are trained to detect tuberculosis in countries including Tanzania, Mozambique, and Ethiopia.
Detecting Mines, Saving Lives
HeroRATS live anywhere from 6-8 years of age, four of which they spend working to clear mines or detect tuberculosis. They are indigenous to sub-Saharan Africa, making them resistant to most tropical diseases. This is handy because once a HeroRAT is trained, it is unlikely to fall ill before its usual lifespan. In addition, they do not get attached to their trainers as dogs do. They are also easily transferable from person to person and have cheap upkeep costs, including food and maintenance.
They are both omnivorous and mainly nocturnal, so they can only work for a few hours during the day before tiring out. In addition to detecting landmines in Cambodia, HeroRATS can also be found detecting mines in Angola, Zimbabwe, and Colombia.
Mines are incredibly expensive to remove in comparison to the amount it takes to make them in the first place. Landmines are anywhere from $3-75, but the painfully time-consuming and dangerous methods in which to remove these life taking devices costs anywhere from $300-1,000 when removed by humans. This puts a great economical strain on oftentimes rural communities that simply do not have the means to make sure that their land is safe.
Other explosive decided that HeroRATS are able to detect include:
- Unexploded artillery shells
- Hand grenades
- Airdropped bombs
In other words, HeroRATS are detecting Explosive Remnants of War, or ERW’s in Cambodia in addition to:
- Unexploded Ordinance (UXO)
- Abandoned Explosive Ordinance (AXO)
The APOPO Process
In order to return the land back to the Khmer people, there are a few steps members of APOPO must take before letting the HeroRATS do their jobs and avoid having to use traditional methods of mine clearance, including people armed with metal detectors.
First, the staff at APOPO must prepare the ground by softening the soil and clearing out all of the overgrown foliage. This makes the land accessible to both humans and HeroRATS. Afterward, they must clear the safe lanes, which are a few meters in length. These lanes are prepared by people using metal detectors. These are the lanes they stay in while the HeroRATS search between the two people.
Two people stay within the cleared lanes with a rope tied to their ankle. The HeroRAT goes back and forth between the lanes and, if it detects something, will scratch at the surface. Once it does that, one of the trainers will click and the rat will return to the person to receive its treat. Afterward, a deminer will come with a metal detector to safely excavate where the HeroRAT detected something and confirm whether or not there is a landmine present.
The last step of the process is to safely get rid of the landmine. Sometimes, it is removed on the spot while other times, it is safely demolished where it lies. Once an entire area is covered, the land is returned to the community so that they may continue to make a livelihood off it without living in constant fear — this process is known as Land Release. Without this process, villagers would have to constantly be in fear of doing basic necessities, such as working on their land, gathering water, and expanding their villages. This process gives these communities not only their land back but also their lives.
The Life of a HeroRAT
What does a day off for a HeroRAT look like? First of all, they get additional treats consisting of grains, fresh vegetables, fruits, and small sardine-type fish. They have their own caretakers who clean their kennels regularly and give some much deserved TLC and playtime to the rats. The rats are looked after daily with weekly health inspections and reports to ensure they are feeling their best. When they aren’t training, there is plenty of time for rest, as well.
The most important thing to note is that not a single rat has ever died in the line of duty — every HeroRAT that has ever passed away was taken by natural causes, making it completely safe for the HeroRATS to continue their life-changing work in Siem Reap, Cambodia!
Adopt a HeroRAT
Do you want to make a difference? Then be sure to check out APOPO’s website to find out more about how you can adopt one of these incredible creatures for only $7 a month. The funds directly support demining initiatives. You will also receive updates about your HeroRATS training efforts and development throughout. You can even rename the rat!
You can also support the organization by visiting Sister Srey Cafe, a delicious coffee shop and restaurant duo where 100 percent of the profits go to supporting the landmine clearing efforts of APOPO. Check out all of the best cafes for coffee in Siem Reap, here!
Visiting the APOPO Visitor Center in Siem Reap
The APOPO Visitor Center is but a 15-minute tuk-tuk ride from the city center. Benjamin Carrichon, the PR & Fundraising Manager at APOPO Visitor Center, says that since it opened in January 2018, they’ve had more than 20,000 visitors and are always looking for more!
“I am glad that out guests have been able to know about the [landmine] situation,” Carrichon said. “What we want is [for] people [to] get engaged by following us and our activities and on a further level being a potential donor, by adopting a rat [or making a] donation.”
The APOPO Visitor Center is open Monday to Saturday from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. There is a $5 fee which includes a guided tour and demonstration.
More Information About the APOPO Visitor Center
Did you love this article about the APOPO Visitor Center? Do you want even more information about HeroRATS and landmines in Cambodia? Then be sure to check out these articles we’ve rounded up with everything you need to know about these incredible creatures and more.
- International Landmine Awareness Day 2019 by Ashley Fitzpatrick for APOPO
- What you should know about Landmines in Cambodia by Bill Sylvester for World Nomads
- A Guide to Cambodia’s Landmines and Unexploded Ordnance by Marissa for Culture Trip