APOPO Mine Action in Cambodia

Story written by: Alexandra Gonzalez-Mendoza and Sara Goddard

Multimedia (Footage and Stills) by: Alexandra Gonzalez-Mendoza, Chantal Hallam, Dr. Kelly McIlvenny, Lily Mitchell and Sara Goddard

It starts with a few sniffs in the air then suddenly before you realise it, a giant Gambian pouched rat has discovered an underground landmine. Once the landmines are uncovered by the brave deminers the dangerous explosive are revealed as peacefully nestled in the ground. Some of these unexploded ordinances (UXOs) and landmines have stayed hidden for close to 3 decades.

During that time, many innocent people have been felt the aftermath of the war that first started with Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge, and their genocide of the Cambodian people. The new generation of Cambodians in the city no longer live in fear of landmines, however out in the villages throughout the different provinces it’s a different story. To this day farmers and families are left with two choices; either to die from starvation or run the risk of losing a limb to a hidden landmine. Considering the number of amputees in Cambodia the question is rhetorical. Even those who have lost a limb from a landmine must continue to work in order to survive.

In order to reduce the number of incidents throughout Cambodia - as well as other countries such as Laos and Angola - the government’s largest demining operator in the country the Cambodian Mine Action Center (CMAC) have continued their partnership with APOPO (Anti-Persoonsmijnen Ontmijnende Product Ontwikkeling – Dutch for Anti-Personnel Landmines Detection). APOPO is a non-government organisation (NGO) that uses Mine Detection Rats (MDRs) to sniff out landmines.

These rats are well suited for this job because of their superior sense of smell and their weight. MDRs usually weigh between 1.2 to 1.5kg, nothing near the 5kg needed to set off a mine. They are so efficient that they can cover 200m2 within 20 minutes, whereas a metal detector would take up to 4 days. Another benefit of the MDRs over metal detectors is that the MDRs are only searching for the scent of TNT, which is found in all mines, whether they are made from plastic or metal. On the other hand, the metal detector can only find metal which often leads to pieces of scrap metal such as spoons, jewellery being found as well as mines.

First trained in Tanzania, the $6,000 MDRs reach Cambodia only once they’ve met the stringent requirements set. Ongoing training for a MDR lasts for another year in order to prepare them for the fields of Cambodia. The MDRs in training are first exposed to clicker training, where they are conditioned to the noise, and elements also include background noises such as cars, bikes and being used to spending time with people. While this is occurring the rat is given a treat for responding to the clicker each time, where they will soon link the noise of a ‘click’ with food.

Following from this is scent discrimination, where the smell of TNT is introduced along with non-TNT odours. At first, the scent is very strong but as training continues it is gradually reduced and the rat must work harder to find it, increasing their accuracy. Then they work in soil trays in different environmental conditions, searching for the TNT positive smells.

When the rat pauses and hovers above a location where the scent of TNT is coming from it’ll display a sign, such as scratching the ground, grooming, smelling the air and others. Therefore, each rat has a different signature sign and once the target is accurately found a ‘click’ goes off and a treat is soon scoffed down. In a short time frame the MDRs are rapidly able to distinguish between positive and negative TNT smells.

Taken to a training field with pre-marked 200m2 sections of land where the trainers know the locations of the TNT laced-deactivated mines are buried, the MDRs are trained as though it’s the real deal and on-queue the rat will show its signature sign of scratching or sniffing. If accurate one of the trainers utilises the clicker and the rat is immediately rewarded, generally with a banana, upon returning to the trainer.

This further conditions the rats to associate traces of TNT with a reward. The rat must be accredited before it can be sent out to the minefields and search for live mines. In the final test, the rat must have 100% accuracy; if one mine is missed it fails. On an actual minefield, missing a mine means risking the life or safety of a person. If the rat passes, it is then sent to their country of operation, where they are re-tested by local authorities to prove their efficiency and suitability. If successful, they start work on the real minefields.

When searching for mines, two handlers accompany each rat. The rat wears a harness, which connects to two pieces of rope; one is wrapped around each handler’s leg to create a trail for the rat to follow. The other rope is held by the handlers to gently guide the rat in each direction. The rat methodically combs each inch of ground in search of TNT.

APOPO works closely with CMAC to clear out a number of mine riddled areas. Once a rat has signalled it has discovered a mine, a CMAC de-miner comes in and very carefully removes the mine. If stable enough the mines are carefully stored to be detonated, with a collection of other explosives, the next day.

With the current resources APOPO has they can only prioritise the high-risk areas first, this results in other areas and projects being pushed further behind. At this rate it’s estimated that a mine-free Cambodia would be accomplished within the next 20 years.



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