Life­sav­ing hero rats with a nose for ex­plo­sives

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - IMPACTJOURNALISM DAY - Writ­ten by Lau­ren Crothers for Sparknews Read Cather­ine Cleary on FoodCloud, The Irish Times con­tri­bu­tion to Im­pact Jour­nal­ism Day, in to­day’s Irish Times Magazine

Merry usu­ally wakes be­fore the sun rises and is driven to work along with 11 of her col­leagues in Siem Reap prov­ince, Cam­bo­dia. They work for a few hours, nap­ping be­tween shifts. Her job, de­tect­ing land­mines and other un­ex­ploded ord­nance (UXO), re­quires a laser-like fo­cus. It also helps that at about a kilo in weight, she’s very light of foot.

Merry is an African gi­ant pouched rat, or Crice­to­mys gam­bianus, a docile and ex­cep­tion­ally smart ro­dent with su­pe­rior ol­fac­tory abil­i­ties. She is one of a team of “HeroRATs” bred, trained and de­ployed by the Bel­gian non-profit APOPO, which is head­quar­tered in Tan­za­nia. Af­ter work­ing suc­cess­fully to help de­tect mines in Mozam­bique for more than a decade, and in An­gola since 2013, the or­gan­i­sa­tion part­nered with the Cam­bo­dian Mine Ac­tion Cen­tre (CMAC) in 2015.

Cam­bo­dia is one of the most mine- and UXO-con­tam­i­nated coun­tries in the world. At least 500,000 tonnes of ord­nance were dropped by the United States as the war spilled over from Viet­nam, while decades of con­flict af­ter the 1970s saw mil­lions of mines laid through­out the coun­try. More than 1,600sq km of land are still con­tam­i­nated by mines and other explosive rem­nants of war.

The im­pact on com­mu­ni­ties has been noth­ing short of dev­as­tat­ing. Ac­cord­ing to the lat­est fig­ures from the Cam­bo­dia Mines/UXO Vic­tim In­for­ma­tion Sys­tem, more than 64,000 ca­su­al­ties were recorded be­tween 1979 and Fe­bru­ary of this year. Nearly 20,000 of these peo­ple were killed.

Paws on the ground

The Cam­bo­dian vil­lage of Dai Ouv lies about 25km from the Thai bor­der. It is home to more than 2,000 peo­ple and a 3,600m-long minefield that has blighted the tran­quil land­scape for decades. By April 8th of this year, Merry and her clawed com­rades, along with their hu­man coun­ter­parts, were ex­pected to have cleared the en­tire area.

Pok Nin, a res­i­dent of Dai Ouv, al­ways had a height­ened sense of fear when he tried to grow crops; one man he knew was killed af­ter step­ping on a land­mine, while an­other had a very close call when his trac­tor trig­gered one in a field.

Like oth­ers, he was scep­ti­cal about the rats’ abil­ity to clear mines. “Cam­bo­dian rats run ev­ery­where and eat ev­ery­thing,” Nin says. But in Fe­bru­ary, he was handed a mine-free plot of land that the rats had cleared. “It has changed my life,” he says.

Tethered to a ca­ble that ex­tends across a 10m x 20m grid and at­tached to han­dlers on ei­ther side, they work the ground with their noses, inch by inch, back and forth. They do this swiftly: the rats are able to check an area the size of a ten­nis court in 30 min­utes.

When a rat smells TNT, the explosive com­pound found in most land­mines, it will stop and fo­cus on that one area be­fore scratch­ing lightly at the soil. Once the scent is con­firmed, the teams be­gin a care­ful ex­ca­va­tion to un­cover what lies be­neath.

“The im­pact has been big,” says Ven­de­line Shir­ima, APOPO’s in­ter­na­tional mine-de­tec­tion rats su­per­vi­sor from Tan­za­nia. “Peo­ple would say it was crazy, but when we started clear­ing Mozam­bique, they saw it was pretty amaz­ing. We never miss mines us­ing rats.” Mozam­bique was of­fi­cially de­clared mine-free in Septem­ber 2015.

De­tec­tion rates

Spe­cially trained HeroRATs have also proven suc­cess­ful at sniff­ing out tu­ber­cu­lo­sis in Tan­za­nia and Mozam­bique. Ac­cord­ing to APOPO, the rats have iden­ti­fied more than 11,000 TB cases missed by govern­ment clin­ics, in­creas­ing de­tec­tion rates by more than 50 per cent in 2016.

Sr Denise Cogh­lan works in Cam­bo­dia as part of the In­ter­na­tional Cam­paign to Ban Land­mines team that was awarded the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize. “They’re in­ter­est­ing-look­ing crea­tures,” she says of the HeroRATs. “I think any­body that can con­trib­ute to mine clear­ance and erad­i­ca­tion of the prob­lem is an as­set.”

Cogh­lan and Shir­ima both note that fund­ing is one of the ma­jor chal­lenges in mine clear­ance. De­spite this, rats are cost-ef­fec­tive in the long term, as their ba­sic needs – wa­ter, food and a clay pot to bed down in – are in­ex­pen­sive. They are also able to cover more ground in a shorter amount of time than a per­son with a de­tec­tor, speed­ing up op­er­a­tions and leav­ing funds for fur­ther tasks, or for check­ing a wider area for ex­plo­sives.

Back at home in their freshly cleaned clay pots and sated by a hearty meal of banana and peanuts, Merry and her col­leagues set­tle in for the rest of the day. Come sun­rise, they’ll be back out in this quiet cor­ner of Cam­bo­dia again, noses to the ground.


Sophia Mao with Fred, an African gi­ant pouched rat trained to de­tect un­ex­ploded ord­nance. “He just gets on with the job.”

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