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I love HeroRATs

Rats? I hear you cry? Yes indeed, but only a specific type. The African Giant Pouch Rat. Why? Because they save human lives every day.

It is hard to visit Cambodia and not hear about the Killing Fields. As I am not up for negative news I decided to visit APOPO in Siem Reap, a non-profit charity, to find out about their vital work worldwide.

As most of us will have seen Pixar’s “Ratatouille” we know that rats have an extremely well developed sense of smell (and taste). Combined with light weight this makes rats perfect for sniffing out the chemical compounds of TNT (explosive) found in landmines and other explosive remnants of war. They ignore scrap metal making them much faster at detecting landmines than metal detectors. They search an area the size of a tennis court in 30 minutes!

Meet Valerie, one of 53 HeroRATs currently employed in Cambodia to sniff out landmines!
I am usually not into rats but I got distracted by her squinted eyes (they are nocturnal), cute whiskers and tiny fluffy ears. I did not notice her tail wrapping around my arm at the time and shuddered belatedly when looking at the photos.

Over 60 countries are contaminated with hidden landmines and other explosive remnants of war, causing fatal accidents, crippling children, and hampering communities from developing their productive land.
We were shown types of landmines and their uses. Our guide told us there is no such landmine as shown in movies. You step on it and boom. The ones with trip wire throw their shrapnel in the air for maximum devastation. Others are small and only supposed to severely injure, so your buddies help you and their forward progress is hampered. How disgusting is this? I was ashamed to be human.

Turned out to be a negative topic after all, sorry, but we now come to the positive informations!

Every HeroRAT has a personal handler. As one said “I used to eat rats, but now he is my family and I am proud to be his brother.”
The area is measured precisely. The HeroRAT is guided along a measure tape. If it sniffs explosives, it scratches. The handler uses a clicker and this means “Treat”. Peanut or banana are the favourites. The location of landmine is noted down for the removal squad and the search continues.
To ensure the HeroRATs are happy, healthy and not gaining weight, they have a gym! They also have regular health checks and get fed according to their morning weight. Training a HeroRAT costs 6,000 USD.

HeroRATs are also used to quickly and accurately detect tuberculosis, the world’s most deadly infectious disease. 10 million new people contract TB every year, 3 million go undiagnosed, and 1.8 million die from the disease. I lost an uncle in WWII to it.

These rats are heroes indeed. One actually received an award from the UK for its services!

Look at that cute little metal around its neck!

I was impressed and very moved. Just to make up for the cruelty of some humans I paid for having 100 m2 of land cleared, and also vowed not to eat rats, ever.


If you want to learn more or contribute towards this cause, see apopo.org for more information.