Up close with the landmine-detecting rats that are saving lives in Cambodia

In the APOPO rat training and visitor centre in Siem Riep, giant rodents show off the skills that make them heroes, rather than pests

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Wearing a harness attached to a cable, a giant African rat has its nose to the ground, swiftly yet methodically scouring a patch of dirt in Siem Reap. It criss-crosses the space, sniffing the soil with a level of purpose that suggests it is searching for food. Yet the tourists watching on know better. They’re familiar with this rat’s mission.

Rats on a mission

This rodent is not a pest, but a hero, having been trained to use its extraordinary sense of smell to detect landmines in a country riddled with submerged explosives. It is one of dozens of talented African giant pouched rats that not only save lives by locating unexploded mines, but also help attract tourists to a unique visitor centre in Siem Reap.

Before the coronavirus pandemic shut down world tourism, this small city was inundated with travellers – more than two million people visiting its renowned Angkor Archaeological Park each year. But of the many tourist attractions to have sprung up in Siem Reap, few are as significant as the rat training and visitor centre of charity Apopo.

Magawa the medal-winning rodent

The facility is currently in the spotlight owing to the achievements of one of its rodent alumni, Magawa. In September, this particular rat was awarded a gold medal by UK veterinary charity PDSA, for its remarkable work in Cambodia. Over its four-year career with Apopo, Magawa has located 39 landmines and 28 other unexploded ordnance, while helping clear 14 hectares of land, the equivalent of about 20 football pitches.

This is invaluable work in a country where as many as six million landmines were planted over three decades of conflict up to the late 1990s. Despite efforts to detect and clear these hidden explosives, an estimated 15,000 people are killed or maimed by landmines every year, according to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines.

Countering the landmine crisis

Landmines also hamper the development of farming communities that cannot use fertile land because of them. Cambodia is aiming to eradicate its landmine problem within a decade, and to achieve this, it needs both rats and tourists.

Apopo has done a stellar job of attracting the tourists who come to Siem Reap to admire Angkor Wat. Its visitor centre is just off the main road that connects downtown Siem Reap to the temple complex. Tourists are welcomed by English-speaking staff who offer brief tours of the centre which, in its foyer, has a small but comprehensive museum that explains the history of Apopo and outlines the global landmine problem.

Further inside this complex, tourists can watch the giant rats in action. As I wander towards the roofed area, I am greeted by a Cambodian rat trainer in a khaki-coloured Apopo uniform. In his arms, he is affectionately cradling an enormous rat, as if it were a favoured pet. Alongside him is a small group of tourists sporting a range of facial expressions.

While some appear to be amused and others intrigued, one young woman cannot conceal her revulsion. Rats, after all, are not the most admired of creatures. When the trainer brings the rodent closer to its audience, we step back, almost in unison.

Rats the size of cats 

I am not particularly perturbed by rats, but the sheer heft of this one is disconcerting. It is double the length and girth of any rodent I have seen previously. With a body length of about 25 centimetres, and weighing roughly 1.2 kilograms, it is the size of a small house cat. Yet this is not even a large version, with some African giant pouched rats growing to almost double those dimensions.

This rat has a thick orange stripe across the middle of its face, which almost makes it look like it is wearing a superhero mask. Which is appropriate, considering the extraordinary achievements of these rodents. The trainer places the rat in a patch of dirt, connecting its harness to a cable and letting it put on a show for its newest fans. We are roundly impressed by the speedy and organised fashion in which it sniffs every section of the space.

It is this pace of inspection that makes Apopo's rats so effective. It takes these trained rodents only 30 minutes to search an area the size of a tennis court, something that would take four days for a human wielding a metal detector. Of course, accuracy takes precedence over speed, but Apopo's rats are also supremely reliable at identifying unexploded landmines.

These rodents, which are too light to set off the explosive devices, are trained to use their noses to identify the chemical compounds of live TNT explosives, and ignore the scrap metal of detonated devices. Apopo currently uses them in three countries afflicted by landmines – Cambodia, Mozambique and Angola. The former is its headquarters and main focus.

Although the coronavirus pandemic has brought many things to a standstill around the world, it hasn't slowed the progress of Apopo's rodents. So far this year, they have helped clear more than 300 hectares of landmine-afflicted ground in Cambodia. In doing so, they are not only protecting Cambodians who walk through these areas, but also opening up opportunities to cultivate crops on this land.

Their work relies on the generosity of humans, especially tourists. The Apopo visitor centre in Siem Reap is currently open, with Cambodia having done a solid job in containing the coronavirus, with only 283 infections in total, according to official reports.  Although tourism to Cambodia is currently limited – travellers must do a 14-day quarantine on arrival – when the country does reopen, tourists will be able to support Apopo by giving donations at its visitor centre, buying food and drinks at its cafe, and purchasing merchandise from its gift shop.

In return, visitors will be able to watch up close as this charity’s clever rodents show off the skills that have made them both lifesavers and lively tourist attractions.