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"Short stories and travel reports from my life adventures around the globe".

APOPO Humanitarian Demining, Siem Reap.

APOPO Rats Humanitarian Demining.

APOPO Humanitarian Demining.

February 2020.

I’ve always tried to seek out unique and quirky travel projects. It would be boring if I was always posting about temples, churches, beaches and museums. Although I’ve done plenty of that over the years. Moreover, these more unusual experiences are invariably the most fun to write about.

There have been ample weird and wonderful sights here in Cambodia these past seven months. In Siem Reap, the award for most eccentric goes to APOPO and their team of lovable, life-saving super rats. Yes, you read that right: rats that save lives!

APOPO Rats Humanitarian Demining Cambodia.

“I think I smell a rat!”

APOPO is a nonprofit organisation launched in the Belgian city of Antwerp in 1997. The geniuses behind the concept were Bart Weetjens and Christophe Cox, who came up with the idea of using rats’ amazing sense of smell to detect landmines.

In 2000 APOPO opened its first rat training centre in Tanzania. As this training and research developed, they also discovered that rats could sniff out tuberculosis infections far better, not to mention faster, than existing methods!

APOPO Humanitarian Demining, Siem Reap.

APOPO Visitor Center Siem Reap.

APOPO Visitor Center, Siem Reap.

Committed to a mantra of effective landmine and TB detection, APOPO subsequently opened centres in Mozambique, Angola, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. Of course it was only a matter of time before they got round to Cambodia, one of the worst-hit countries in the world when it comes to landmines. Their facility in Siem Reap became operational in 2014, while the visitor centre followed in 2018.

APOPO Visitor Centre Tour Siem Reap.

Taking the APOPO tour, Siem Reap.

A tour of the Siem Reap complex is a simple and brisk affair that last for about an hour. A friendly guide walked us through the basics of the operation before encouraging a Q&A session from his audience.

Guided tour APOPO Siem Reap.

Our guide.

During this, we learned that APOPO works exclusively with the African Giant Pouched Rat. Chiefly because a) they’re really smart and b) they live longer and can give more years of service. A common, rat for example, would typically live for 2-3 years if kept as a pet. In contrast, The Giant African rat can live more than seven years in captivity.

APOPO logo.

We also learned that these amazing creatures can sniff out explosives from up to one meter underground. Furthermore, their modest weight and lightness of step ensure they don’t trigger the mines and therefore stay perfectly safe.

Cambodia’s Heroic Super Rats!

Hero rats Cambodia.

A rat’s life, Siem Reap.

When not sniffing out landmines, the hero rats hang out in interconnected air conditioned cages fitted with running wheels, toys and wooden tripods to satisfy their gnawing instincts. A clay pot with bedding simulates a natural underground nest for sleeping. Their diet meanwhile is a simple concoction of banana and peanuts.

APOPO Rats Humanitarian Demining Cambodia.

APOPO Humanitarian Demining, Siem Reap

Getting to meet one of the rats in person was of course the highlight of the APOPO experience. One of the most important aspects of the training process is the bond between rat and handler. It’s a system based on total trust from both sides. Happily, I felt a genuine affection between the APOPO handler and his furry friend that day.

Having introduced Mr. Rat, the handler treated us to a fascinating live demonstration of its detecting skills. As you can see in the above video, the rat can comfortably differentiate between everyday smells and the landmine scent, which gives off a TNT odour.

In the early stages of training, handlers expose their rats to a strong target scent. Over time, they gradually lower the strength of the smell and expand the size of the focus area. Eventually, the rat becomes a landmine sniffing specialist. And, of course, the promise of bananas and peanuts provides a strong motivation to get the job done quickly.

APOPO Humanitarian Demining, Siem Reap.

Rat demining Cambodia.

“Landmiiiiiiine!”

An APOPO rat can search an area the size of a tennis court in just thirty minutes. Compare that to a human with a metal detector who would complete the same task in about four days. No competition.

Hero rat and trainer APOPO Siem Reap

APOPO Humanitarian Demining, Siem Reap.

With the sound of applause still rattling around the demonstration grid, we all filed into a nearby hut to watch a promotional video. Here, we saw some first hand accounts of the unspeakable misery landmines inflict on their victims. Which of course leaves you in no doubt of the importance of APOPO’s work.

2020 The Year of the Rat.

Also in the hut, it was fun to spot this statistics board. In 2019 alone APOPO found and deactivated 371 landmines, along with a further 316 unexploded ordinance. Amusingly, they hold monthly and annual competitions to crown the best performing rats. 2019’s king sniffer was a badass rodent by the name of Saibaba. I’m guessing more peanuts was her grand prize.

APOPOP rat toys Siem Reap.

You know you want one.

In the gift shop and lobby there’s a sobering gallery of black and white photographs detailing APOPO’s work over the years. Should it tickle your fancy, they also have t-shirts and rat toys.

What to See & Do, Siem Reap.

APOPO Humanitarian Demining Siem Reap.

APOPO Humanitarian Demining.

Following a period of closure brought on by COVID-19, APOPO reopened their visitor centre on August the 1st 2020. They are now open seven days a week from 8.30am to 16:30. It’s definitely advisable to contact them ahead of your visit, as tour groups are small and in these uncertain times they may be subject to unexpected closures. For more on APOPO and their work, head to the official website.

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To learn more about Cambodia’s landmine problem, take a look at my article on Cambodia Landmine Museum.

Like this? Check out more of my travel reports from around Siem Reap.

Or maybe delve further afield with my articles from across Cambodia.

I’ve been living, working and traveling all over the world since 2001. So why not check out my huge library of travel reports from over 30 countries.

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8 Comments

  • nationalparkswitht

    Cool!

    August 25, 2020 - 4:15 pm Reply
  • 100 Country Trek

    Always leary seeing rats!

    August 25, 2020 - 4:45 pm Reply
  • Memo

    Fascinating for sure, and definitely different! Did you get a chance to handle one? Also, you say they live longer but never say how long.

    August 25, 2020 - 8:19 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Sadly we weren’t offered the chance to handle a rat. My profuse apologies for not mentioning the lifespan of an African Giant Pouched rat. According to my good friend Mr. Google, the average life of a common rat is 2-3 years if kept as a pet. The Giant African rat can live more than seven years in captivity. I’ll update the article when I get a chance.

      August 25, 2020 - 8:26 pm Reply
  • salsaworldtraveler

    Fascinating! This venue and organization was a great find.

    August 26, 2020 - 12:14 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Thank you!

      August 26, 2020 - 12:14 am Reply

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