In Cambodia there are millions of unexploded mines dating back to both the years of regime of the so-called “Khmer Rouge” – who in 1975 established one of the most violent dictatorships of the twentieth century – and the subsequent internal conflicts in the country. Anti-personnel mines are a huge problem for Cambodia and there are many organizations working to clear the many minefields that still exist. To speed up the demining process, in recent years, some organizations have also started to use rats, which if trained to do so are able to detect mines faster and more effectively than dogs and metal detectors.
The Halo Trust, a large humanitarian organization that works to support the demilitarization of the territories after the end of the conflicts, he calculated that in Cambodia since 1979 at least 64,000 people have been injured and over 25,000 have suffered amputations due to mines. Also, according to a recent investigation of the United States Congress, in some areas of the country there are still numerous unexploded bombs that had been dropped by the United States during the vietnam war.
Experts estimated that more than five million anti-personnel mines were laid in the country between 1975 and the early 1990s. Not only in the four years of the Khmer Rouge dictatorship, but especially between 1985 and 1989, after Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia in 1979. Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge settled in Thailand, in a region close to the Cambodian border, and from there they continued their attacks on Vietnamese forces in Cambodia. To contain these attacks, the new Kampuchea People’s Republic built trenches, fences and set up millions of mines along the border with Thailand. The belt of land where these barriers stood it is still today one of the most mined areas in the world.
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In accordance to he rebuilt The Conversation, an average of 100 mine accidents occur each year in Cambodia. Although the conflicts have been over for over 25 years, mine clearance operations are long and dangerous, so the cleanup process is still far from complete. For some years, however, the Cambodian Mine Action Center (CMAC) – one of the organizations involved in demining in the country – found a more effective solution to manage decontamination and started collaborating with the Belgian NGO APOPO, which deals with demining with dogs and rats.
With the use of rats, within five years the CMAC and APOPO have successfully decontaminated several areas of the provinces of Siem Reap, Preah Vihear and Oddar Meanchey, in northwestern Cambodia, and declared safe over 19 million square meters of land, identifying over 47 thousand mines and unexploded bombs.
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The giant African rats trained for demining hail from Tanzania and had already been successfully used to mine various areas in Angola and Mozambique. Unlike metal detectors, rats are able to distinguish between mines with still traces of explosives and other types of scrap metal; moreover they can be easily transported and it costs less to maintain them than it costs to maintain dogs. Unlike dogs, rats are also light enough to be able to pass over a mine without activating the explosion mechanism. A rat can scour an area as large as a tennis court in 30 minutes, while a person with a metal detector would take four days to safely inspect the same area.
APOPO explained that a rat’s training lasts nine months. In demining operations, the rat is tied to ropes which are held by two deminers; the animal moves among the men, who walk at a distance on portions of land that have already been declared safe. When the rat smells the explosive present in the mines, it scrapes the ground: in this way, the deminers can locate the mine and the rat gets a reward, for example a piece of banana.
Last month the British charity People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals has awarded a rat for his contribution to the mine clearance process in Cambodia. Over the past four years this rat, called Magawa, has discovered 39 mines and 28 unexploded ordnance and has “saved and changed the lives of men, women and children,” the association’s director Jan McLoughlin said during the awards ceremony.