They are small, furry and so cute that you almost forget that they are one of the most effective means of detecting deadly anti-personnel mines: the Hero Rats of the Belgian organisation APOPO. Two of these mine-sniffing rats, coordinated by two supervisors, can search over 200 square metres of land within an hour. It would take a mine clearance worker one and a half days to achieve the same.
The armed conflicts during and after the horrific Khmer Rouge period continue to cast a long shadow over Cambodia, even 40 years later. The Southeast Asian country between Thailand, Laos and Vietnam is one of the countries in the world most affected by anti-personnel mines (and cluster bombs). Soil contaminated by mines cannot be used, fatal accidents occur time and again, and the negative economic and social consequences for the country are serious.
Since 2012, APOPO and its partner CMAC have been working with humanitarian demining projects to help people in the affected areas by removing dangerous objects, clearing areas and conducting awareness campaigns for safe behaviour in endangered areas. APOPO not only brings with it enormous know-how in the removal of weapons of war but also specially trained African mine-sniffing rats. These animal helpers, affectionately known as "HeroRats", make mine clearance not only more efficient but above all cheaper. Thanks to the special abilities and characteristics of the rats, minefields can be cleared and released more efficiently - of course without the rats getting hurt (rats are too light to make mines explode).
To date, APOPO and CMAC have found over 45,000 landmines and unexploded ordnance (UXO) and returned over 15 million square meters of safe land to local communities to help people regain control of their lives and livelihoods.
By the way, if you travel to Siem Reap, you can experience how the Hero Rats work and why the work of APOPO and CMAC is so enormously important for Cambodia. The at the APOPO Visitor Center is located directly on the way to the famous temples of Angkor Wat, a visit is definitely worthwhile.