Pit, only 2 years old and with one eye, needed just 11 minutes to locate a deadly mine buried in a Cambodian field, a task that humans with metal detectors could have taken up to five days to complete.
Pit is part of a team of elite rats imported from Africa that Cambodia is training to sniff out land mines that still dot the countryside after decades of conflict.
“Under a clear sky, he would have been quicker,” said Hul Sokheng, a veteran Cambodian mine clearer who oversees the training of 12 handlers. They are being taught to work with 15 Gambian pouched rats to clear Cambodia’s farmland and rural villages of explosives.
“These are lifesaving rats,” he said under rainy skies.
One of the biggest advantages of using rats is that land mines pose no danger to them because they are not heavy enough to trigger an explosion.
Their work could prove vital in a country where unexploded devices, including mines and shells, have killed nearly 20,000 people and wounded about 44,000 since 1979, according to the Cambodian government.
Pit, who can smell highly explosive TNT inside land mines, is watched over by two handlers who keep the one-eyed rat attached to a tether while he searches through the grass.
Pit and the other rats were sent to Cambodia from Tanzania in April by APOPO, a Belgian nonprofit organization. They have been trained to find mines since they were 4 weeks old. At the training field, Pit sniffed TNT scented objects, stopped, dug a little, and was rewarded with a banana.
“He knows his duty: search,” said Hul Sokheng.
Cambodia is still littered with land mines after emerging from decades of war, including the 1970s Khmer Rouge “killing fields” genocide, leaving it with one of the world’s highest disability rates.
APOPO has used the rodents for mine-clearing projects in several countries, including Angola, Mozambique, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam.
A rat undergoes training to find mines at a center in Cambodia on Thursday. Mines have killed nearly 20,000 people in the country since 1979. Samrang Pring / Reuters
(China Daily 07/15/2015 page1)