Demining Rats Get All Clear to Begin Testing

The battle against landmines could soon have an unlikely new weapon after a pioneering Belgian NGO signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the government on Monday to begin testing teams of sharp-sniffing rodents in Cambodia, with the goal of pitching them into the ongoing battle to rid the country of its deadly wartime legacy.

Apopo has been training African Giant Pouched rats in Tanzania since 2008 to use their super-powered sense of smell to locate explosive material inside buried unexploded ordnance (UXO), with skilled handlers using the harnessed rats to sweep the land in search of buried devices.

Known as HeroRats, the rodents have since 2010 been successfully clearing land of thousands of mines and UXO in Mozambique and Angola, while Apopo has also trained and employed hundreds of people from local communities to become part of demining teams, and Cambodia’s heavily mined terrain seems a natural fit for the rodents’ unique skills.

“We are very happy to sign the MoU [and] are looking forward to bringing the mine detection rats to Cambodia,” said Kim Warren, who has been appointed as Apopo country director for Cambodia.

“It is going to be interesting to see them working on Cambodia soil,” she said, adding that as the soil here is very similar to that in Tanzania, the rats should adapt to the terrain with ease.

From 1979 to September 2013, landmines killed 19,683 people and left 44,606 more injured, according to the latest figures from the Cambodian Mine Action and Victim Assistance Authority (CMAA). Joint landmine-clearance efforts by the government and various demining NGOs have dramatically reduced casualties over the past few years. In the first nine months of this year, 21 people died in Cambodia, compared to 37 in the same period in 2012.

But significant challenges remain, and Apopo hopes that its HeroRats can help Cambodia achieve targets set by the 2010 to 2019 National Mine Action Strategy, the commitment Cambodia made when it ratified the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention, or Ottawa Convention, in July 1999.

One of the main challenges in Cambodia will be acceptance, said Christophe Cox, Apopo chief executive officer, but he believes that with government-approved testing set to begin in early 2014, initial skepticism at least has been dispelled.

“It will be a process of acceptance, but using demining dogs faced the same issues, with handlers themselves reluctant to follow the animals into the minefields and trusting the equipment more. Now their use is established,” he said.

“In all our testing and field operations, we have never had a single mine left behind by the rats,” Mr. Cox added.

Apopo will invite members of the CMAA to its training fields in Morogoro, Tanzania, in early 2014 to see for themselves how effective the rats are.

“I think there it will be a very good opportunity for CMAA to be exposed to the real implementation on the ground in Tanzania,” said Chan Ratha, deputy secretary-general of CMAA.

“We want to learn more and we are very positive about what Apopo has to offer, but it requires testing to acquire CMAA accreditation.”

The first batch of about 10 rats will come to Cambodia in March to begin acclimatizing and then field testing, but sniffing out mines turns out to be only one of their unique skills.

In Tanzania and Mozambique, they are playing an important role in detecting tuberculosis. The rats can screen more medical samples in about seven minutes than technicians in a microscopy lab can manage in a day.

Since Apopo began its operations, the rats have screened almost 200,000 samples working in 25 hospitals, and in 2012 alone detected 555 cases of TB. Ms. Warren and Mr. Cox hope to persuade the World Health Organization (WHO) in Cambodia and the National Center for Tuberculosis and Leprosy Control that they can also be of benefit in Cambodia, which is one of the world’s 22 high-TB burden countries.

“We are interested in what Apopo has to say…. There are pros and cons of every diagnostics and we are always interested in new technologies,” said Dr. Rajendra Yadav, country medical officer for the WHO’s Stop TB program.

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