The APOPO Hero Rats, Siem Reap.
The APOPO Hero Rats, Siem Reap.
I’ve always tried to seek out unique and quirky travel projects. After all, it would be boring if I was always posting about temples, churches, beaches and museums. Although I have indeed done plenty of that over the years.
Moreover, these more unusual experiences are invariably the most fun to write about. There were ample weird and wonderful sights for Sladja and I during our seven months in Cambodia. In Siem Reap, the award for most eccentric goes to APOPO and their team of lovable, life-saving hero rats. Yes, you read that right: rats that save lives!
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 detect tuberculosis infections far better, not to mention faster, than existing methods!
The APOPO Hero Rats, 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.
A tour of the Siem Reap complex is a simple and brisk affair that lasts for about an hour. A friendly guide walked us through the basics of the operation before encouraging a Q&A session from his audience.
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.
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!
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 bananas and peanuts.
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.
The APOPO Hero Rats, Siem Reap.
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.
With the sound of applause still rattling around the demonstration grid, we 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.
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 ordinances. 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.
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.
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.
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.
Thanks, pretty quirky right?
Always leary seeing rats!
I think these ones are quite beautiful!
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.
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.
Fascinating! This venue and organization was a great find.
Wow, I had heard of rats being intelligent but it’s hard to believe that they can cover the area of a tennis court so quickly and can become trained to sniff out landmines. I’ve rarely seen them, thank goodness and usually scurrying about beneath the underground lines in London.
Yes I think our general feelings of rats are quite negative. Sewers… disease… snarling faces… I think there was even a James Herbert horror novel simply called ‘Rats’. These guys were so clean, their eyes so bright and full of intelligence. This was definitely one of my favorite finds in Siem Reap. Thanks for reading Marion and for your contribution to the rat-thread.
What a heartwarming place where everyone seems to benefit from the workers and the citizens to the rats themselves. I would love to see that demonstration in person
Hey Stan, from all of the war sites and exhibits I visited in Siem Reap, I think this was the only one where I came away smiling. Thanks for reading!
I have come across this before, but it was great to now read your post and see the video about them. Side note: A rat once kept me on a table for more than an hour (Berto is still trying to convince me that he was more scared of me than I was of him 😁). Though I’m still a bit wary of them, I do find it fascinating that they have the ability to sniff out those landmines!
Oh wow, sounds like I should congratulate you for getting to the end of the article! Yeah, these rats are obviously a whole different breed. Otherwise I have no desire to hang out with rats! Thanks for reading Corna!
Those rats are massive! Dare I say a little bit cute? They sort of remind me of a chinchilla mixed with a mouse. It’s amazing how much rats are used for human benefits though even though most people hate them.
They are cute I think! Some people just can’t see it but I found them to be quite thoughtful and charming. And as you say, there’s no doubting the benefit they provide.
In NYC they can climb up water pipes into people’s toilets… I wouldn’t like that rat. We live on the 40th floor so I think we’re safe haha
Now that is what I call an unusual tour Leighton. Just goes to show you that rats can be more than freeloaders looking for a free meal. Glad someone thought of this and then instituted the training program. Happy Wednesday. Allan
Thanks Allan! It’s always great when you have something a bit different to share. I’ve been looking to putting this one out for a while.
That is really incredible that these rats can do this! What an ingenious idea to use the rats. I’ve never been partial to rats or mice, but I must say those look strangely cute and cuddly. I think it must be their size that makes them seem more cuddly. Really great post! 🙂
Yeah I think their size is part of the reason they seem more appealing. Thanks for checking out APOPO Meg and their hero rats!
This is fascinating! Who would have thought rats could be so useful. Interesting piece Leighton! Maggie
Thanks for reading Maggie! It really is a unique place and that rare Cambodian War sight that leaves you feeling positive instead of empty.
That is just amazing, never ever would have known this and I’ve known a few rats in my time 😂😂
Thanks for reading Gary! Are you talking about love rats? 💗 😉
At my age I fail to remember things like that.
This is really neat! I am impressed with how intelligent the rats are, and it is amazing that they are saving lives as well.
Life saving rats eh? Who’d have thunk it? Thanks for taking a look Allie.
Never thought that rats could be used to potentially save lives, especially sniffing out land mines! Doesn’t hurt that they’re incredibly cute!
It’s what you call a win-win for everyone involved in this amazing project! Thanks for dropping in Rebecca.
I watched a documentary on these rats a while back, totally amazing!
They are magnificent eh? Thanks for your comment.
Animals are so amazing; and the little critters are pretty cute too! I love the photo of the one in the harness.
I’m glad I’m not the only one who thinks they’re cute! Thanks for checking out APOPO’s cool hero rats!
I always thought that rats are utterly misunderstood (I have the same opinion of pigeons). Brilliant animals, love the mission of this organisation. Who would say rats can be saving human lives?
I think you might be right about rats. Honestly, I have had little contact with rats over the years. These creatures were just wonderful though: smart, beautiful and with real character. Thanks for checking in, Nic!
I have never been a rat fan until now. I guess because these rats are doing such an incredible service to humans, they are much cuter than any other rats I’ve seen! I would even hold one and feed it bananas. What a wonderful organization, APOPO. I may be tempted to donate to their cause. Thank you for sharing this, Leighton.
You’re an absolute star for seeking this piece out Kellye, much appreciated.
I love your stuff, Leighton!
Definitely quirky but quite fascinating! Amazing creatures when viewed outside urban environments. Did you buy a rat t-shirt? I visited a rehab center in Phnom Penh for victims of landmines, fitting them with artificial limbs and training them, called COPE. So moving to meet some of the people they serve and hear their story.
Oh wow I’ve heard of COPE but didn’t visit. What an experience that must have been. I didn’t buy a shirt at APOPO, but I did pick one up at The Cambodian Landmine Museum. Still got it too!
At COPE, they strap one leg up and you can try doing things on one leg while they coach you. Good videos of their program. So many kids have been maimed by landmines. Yay for the rats!