It is one of these stories that can be told in a single sentence: Cambodia is training an elite squad of giant rats imported from Africa to detect landmines.
The technique has reportedly been used successfully in various African nations, including Tanzania, Mozambique, and Angola, according to AFP. This video from 2013 shows how it was done in Mozambique, with handlers using poles and leashes to guide mine-sniffing rats that weigh up to 1.2 kilograms:
The rat squads, trained by a Belgian non-government organization called Apopo, are said to have uncovered over 2,400 mines in Mozambique. As CNN reported in September 2014, these rats are considered “heroes” and given as gifts in Africa, where Apopo runs an “adopt-a-rat” program.
They can sniff out tuberculosis as well as land mines, and CNN reports they’re very good at both jobs: “A single rat can clear 200 square feet in an hour (done manually, the same area would take 50 hours to clear). A TB-detection rat can evaluate 50 samples in eight minutes (almost a day’s work for a lab technician).” With the help of rat teams, Mozambique is on track to become landmine-free, and safer traveling conditions have become an enormous boon to the economy.
According to AFP, two Cambodian mine experts have undergone training in Tanzania for using the rat technique, are now “sharing their expertise with their colleagues.” Unfortunately, the Cambodian environment doesn’t seem to agree with the imported African rats, as one of them has already died.
Several weeks of testing in a variety of controlled environments to measure the speed and efficiency of the rats before they are deployed into a live minefield. Unfortunately, Cambodia has plenty of those.
“Nearly three decades of civil war gripped Cambodia from the 1960s, leaving the poverty-stricken nation both one of the most heavily bombed and heavily mined countries in the world,” as AFP notes. Landmines and other leftover ordnance have killed some 20,000 people over the years, including 154 in 2014 and 111 in 2013.