Not all heroes wear capes - Siem Reap opens its first visitor centre where you can meet APOPO's Mine Detection Rats, aka HeroRATs, that are saving lives in the Cambodian countryside.
APOPO is a Belgian NGO that trains Gambian Giant Rats to detect landmines. They are currently operating in Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Angola, Colombia and Cambodia, with Cambodia being one of the most contaminated stretches of land in the world.
Using their sense of smell the Mine Detection Rats (MDRs) detect deadly land mines and unexploded ordinances (UXO) that have been left over from half a million tons of bombs dropped on Cambodia by the United States in the late 60s and early 70s.
Landmines and UXO's kill and injure two people every week in Cambodia (MAG), with authorities estimating that there may be as many as four to six million mines and unexploded ordinances remaining throughout the country. Not only do these weapons of war take lives, they also contribute to poverty, restrict land usage and hinder the development of local communities.
APOPO saw the need for community relief and commenced de-mining operations in the Siem Reap Province in 2016. To date APOPO has assisted in destroying over 5000 landmines, 39,000 UXOs and clearing over 14 million square metres of land that is now safe for use in Cambodia.
"When APOPO and their partner the Cambodian Mine Action Center (CMAC) arrived, they took a week to clear my field and found six homemade landmines that were still live. For so long we had driven, ploughed, and dug right next to them but never hit them. I can’t explain how that feels, or the relief we felt when we were told the fields are now safe." Phouk Nil, Cambodian Farmer. Read Phouk's full story.
Comparing to the traditional method for mine detection that involves using metal detectors, the Mine Detection Rats are much more efficient. For example, a tennis court could be cleared in 20 minutes by the MDR whilst a metal detector would take 3 days.
If you're reading this wondering about the safety of these creatures there's no need for concern, the HeroRATs are too light to set off the landmines and not a single rat has ever died in a minefield. You can read more about the welfare of the HeroRATs here.
A recent article stresses that Cambodia is not in line to meet its landmine clearance target by 2025. To get there, Cambodia has to clear an average of 11 square km a year of densely contaminated land over the next nine years. Over the last five years, however, it has averaged only 2 square km per year. APOPOs project could potentially see Cambodia reach this target and eliminate Cambodia from landmines by 2025.
This year Siem Reap opened its first visitor centre where you can discover the history of conflict in Cambodia, the impact of landmines on local communities, and have the opportunity to meet and see the HeroRATs in action. The centre is another avenue of support for this life changing NGO that runs off the support of donors and volunteers.
If you're visiting Siem Reap be sure to stop by, show your support and learn about the work they do. You can also support online via this link.
APOPO Visitor Centre
Siem Reap, Cambodia
Opening hours: Monday to Saturday from 8.30am to 5.30pm
Phone: +855 8159 9237