I learned about the landmine-sniffing rats on my first day I was able to walk outside in Cambodia, which was my third day in the country.
It took me so long to venture out because I’d somehow managed to pick up a cold in Hoi An, making me the first person in recorded history to get sick doing practically nothing but waking up late and padding 20 feet to the turquoise beach each day. I should get a medal! But, like salads and cats, it turns out colds do not travel well, and by the time our plane touched down in Siem Reap, what began as an annoyance had mutated into a full-fledged war being waged in my sinuses. I staggered up four flights of un-air-conditioned stairs to the Airbnb, my head throbbing and my skin chilled with fever. I went to bed and stayed there, moving only to occasionally ladle soup into my pathetic mouth like some sort of far-flung Dickens orphan.
Finally, on the third day, I was roused from the Airbnb on the strength of desperate boredom and a few magic decongestants laced with acetaminophen and who-the-fuck-cares, they worked. I’d initially wanted to go to the Cambodian Landmine Museum, but when I called to make sure they were open, I was told they were in the process of recovering from a fire, though the actual story sounds more complicated.
As an alternative, we found the APOPO Visitor Center, and I’m so glad we did. APOPO is a non-profit founded in the ‘90s by a Belgian man named Bart Weetjens, who realized that Giant African Pouched rats and their highly sensitive noses could be used to sniff out landmines, which remain deadly hazards in numerous countries around the world, including, of course, Cambodia.
Before we get to rats, let’s talk about the severity of the landmine problem. Various warring factions, including the Khmer Rouge but also several others, spent three decades absolutely packing Cambodia’s sandy soil with landmines, an act so short-sighted it fairly boggles the mind. The explosives were cheap and easy to make, and by the time peace was declared in 1991, the country was blanketed with them: The Cambodian Land Mine Action Centre estimates that between four and six million mines were planted, though other sources put the number closer to ten million.
Unfortunately, their locations were forgotten almost the moment they disappeared beneath the dirt, a major problem since they remain active for more than 50 years. As of 2013, the most recent year data was published in the Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor, the country had seen 64,314 mine/ERW casualties, with 19,684 people killed and another 44,630 injured since 1979.
Cambodians are still killed or disfigured by landmines on a far too regular basis. After a couple years of declining numbers, casualty rates rose again in 2018, with seven people killed and 36 injured between January and August. Those affected are usually farmers out plowing their land. Because most of the explosives are intended to disfigure rather than kill, victims are often left as amputees, unable to work and thus unable to support themselves and their families.
Which brings us back to the importance of the rats.
The APOPO Visitor Center is not a museum or exhibit so much as an educational facility that allows people to see firsthand how the animals actually find the landmines. Having learned from the issue with the Landmine Museum, I called APOPO to make sure they were open, and was told to show up at 1:30 p.m. When we arrived in a tuk tuk a few minutes late, our guide, Sorn, was already knee-deep into his talk with an enthusiastic English couple, explaining why and how the rats were used.
Standing next to a rectangular plot of dirt around the size of a tennis court, Sorn told us that APOPO trains its rats to identify the scent of explosives using tea eggs. A clicker is used when a rat correctly identifies a TNT-scented egg, and rewards its success with food. The next step is to plant those tea eggs in soil, strap the rat into a rat-sized harness, and train them to sniff out the explosives in a more realistic context. Finally, they’re ready to find actual landmines.
At this point, it was time to watch a rat in action. A handler brought one out from its cage, and we watched as they first harnessed it up, then strapped it to the guiding line that would ensure she moved along an even path. In the field, the handlers clear safe lanes for themselves with metal detectors, then arrange a square of space for the rat to clear. (Though they’re an effective tool for finding landmines, a metal detector can’t differentiate between a mine and scrap metal, significantly slowing the process. It’s also more dangerous—a human will trigger a landmine to detonate; the rats will not. They’re too light.)
Our rat looked like something a normal rat could saddle up and ride to the saloon, though to be honest I think I’ve seen ones of comparable size lumbering through Tompkins Square Park. Fancy African rats or not, it turns out all rodents look ungainly and hilarious strapped in a harness, even if they’ve been trained from birth to wear one. The rat pressed its body low to the ground and waddled along its line, inhaling the scent in the ground with an intensity I recognized in myself when there are chicken wings afoot. A few times it paused, and our tiny group fell silent in anticipation, only to realize it was just pausing to lick its crotch. It scooted along, casually stepping over a piece of scrap metal, and right when I was wondering whether it was actually going to find anything, it stopped in its tracks and began raking its dainty paws over something buried in the dirt. Success!
As of 2017, the rats cleared 750,000 square meters of land. But 20 percent of the country still needs to be searched, meaning Cambodia has a ways to go if it’s going to hit its goal of being landmine-free by 2025.
The rat, of course, has no idea how integral it is to the country’s healing, and we watch as it shambles over to its trainer, still wearing its work clothes, and happily stuffs peanuts into its giant rat face.