Hero Rats of Cambodia

Updated: Jul 31, 2020

In his younger days Hugo may have considered chasing them and having them for lunch, but these days Hugo has learned to respect the Hero- Rats of Cambodia

The countryside and jungles of Cambodia are littered with land mines. These insidious weapons, designed to maim rather than kill, are the legacy of years of war and conflict, and it is estimated that there are somewhere between 4 – 6 million mines buried across the country.

Cambodian lady in protective clothing holds a Tanzanian Giant-pouched rat in a Cambodian minefield
A Cambodian mine clearer holding one of the Hero Rats that are helping to make Cambodia safe from land mines

The work of removing these land mines has been continuing for the last two decades. But it’s slow going, taking a skilled and experienced human with a metal detector about four days to search an area about the size of a tennis court. At this rate it will be centuries before all the mines are removed and people will continue being horrifically injured all that time.

But now there’s a new method for finding these buried land mines, and all you need is a rat! Well, a specially trained rat anyway.

Since 2016 Tanzanian giant-pouched rats have been sniffing out the TNT in land mines, and the speed that they can help clear and area is just amazing.

These working rats, known as Hero Rats, are the brainchild of Belgian rat-lover Bart Weetjens, and led to the formation of APOPO (the Belgian acronym for Anti-Personnel Landmines Removal Product Development) – a non-profit organisation which trains the Tanzanian rats.

A Tanzanian Giant-pouched rat eats banana from their handler's hand in a field
A hero rat enjoys a banana treat during a work break

The rats have some major advantages in mine detection. First, they can smell the TNT of a land mine even if it’s buried 20cm underground. Second, weighing little more than 1Kg, the rats are too light to set of the pressure sensors on the land mines, meaning they are never in danger of setting of the mine. To cap it all off, when a human uses a metal detector they pick up signals from every bit of metal in the ground, but the rats, relying on smell alone, can focus on a single scent – that of TNT – massively reducing the number of false positive discoveries.

First deployed in Angola and Mozambique, the rats proved so effective at helping to clear mines that they were considered the ideal candidate to head to Cambodia the land-mine capital of the world, where more than 40,000 adults and children have become amputees due to land mines – one of the highest rates in the world.

How quick are these Hero Rats? Well, that tennis court sized block that takes a specially trained human 4 days to cover – a Hero Rat can check the same area in half an hour – that’s 128 times faster than current methods!

But these Hero Rats don’t come cheap. It can take months to train them, beginning with clicker training at 5-6 weeks of age before moving on to develop scent detection skills. In the end it costs about $10,000 for a fully trained Hero Rat ready for deployment.

Now maybe I’m getting a bit mellow in my old age, because once my only thought would have been on chasing these little guys for lunch, but these days I’m developing an appreciation of what some other animals can do. I’ve already decided that dogs aren’t so bad, now I think I’m going to have to add rats to the list.

Any animal that can save so many lives and prevent so much pain and misery deserves the Hugo tick of approval!

Bravo to the Hero Rats of Cambodia!

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