In April 2015, APOPO sent its mine detection rats (MDR) to Cambodia following successful mine clearance projects in Angola and Mozambique. This was the first time the MDR were assigned to a country outside of the African continent. The MDR teams are implemented to support existing conventional demining CMAC teams in order to speed up clearance operations in Cambodia.
African giant pouched rats are huge, cat-sized rodents native to central Africa. they have bad visions but have extraordinary senses of smell. This makes them perfect candidates for discovering hidden landmines by sniffing out the explosive TNT.
Finding these hidden explosives is challenging and dangerous: People with metal detectors not only risk their lives, but they also work slowly, stopping to investigate every suspicious ping. Trained dogs, while commonly used, are expensive and tough to transport.
APOPO, a Belgian nonprofit that has created an army of TNT-sniffing African giant pouched rats. These critters are light enough to walk over the mines without setting them off, and use their noses to find the explosives quickly. One rat can search over 2000 square feet (200 square meters) in 20 minutes, an area that could take a human up to four days, APOPO training manager Abdullah Ramadhan said.
APOPO first began joint operations with CMAC in 2014. During this initial phase, APOPO’s capacity was made up of manual demining teams, technical survey and clearance teams, mechanical armored brush cutters as well as explosive ordnance disposal teams. The project focused on Siem Reap province in northern Cambodia.
When the MDR first arrived they went through a period of acclimatization followed by performance tests, which they all passed. The MDR teams then continued onto trials for 3 months on live minefields and were quality controlled for a further 3 months by CMAC who checked the zones after the MDR using metal detectors. The shadowing CMAC manual teams found that the MDR did not miss a single mine and fully approved them allowing them to proceed to standard operations.
When the trained rats find a landmine, they stop and scratch at the TNT-scented spot, which the human de-miners mark and come back later to excavate. When they find a mine, they detonate it on site.
As of November 2018 APOPO/CMAC teams are also working in Preah Vihear province not only returning safe land to the local communities and allowing for resettlement – but clearing land near the Preah Vihear Temple area which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008. An area that is riddled with landmines, cluster munitions and other deadly legacies of past conflict.
The program effectively doubled its capacity in 2019. Operations in Siem Reap Province expanded further to the north, into the Province of Oddar Menchey lying alongside the Cambodia-Thailand border. In February, newly trained Technical Survey Dogs (TSD) were also integrated into the project to further accelerate the land release process.
Since the start of the project, APOPO Cambodia has contributed to the release of over 19 million square meters of land, and safely located and destroyed over 47,000 hazardous items.