On my recent trip to Cambodia, I was able to visit the APOPO Visitor Center in Siem Reap. One of my favorite things about traveling with Wild Frontiers is our dedication to responsible tourism and it doesn't get much more responsible than this.
APOPO stands for Anti-Personnel Landmines Detection Product Development and in 1997 they started their humanitarian work in Tanzania training “Hero Rats” to be able to detect and locate landmines with their keen sense of smell.
After extensive bombing during the Vietnam War, it’s estimated that between 1.9 and 5.8 million cluster munitions remain undetonated in Cambodia, causing over 64,000 casualties since 1979. Landmines especially affect rural communities who rely heavily on agriculture, so when APOPO expanded their efforts to Cambodia in 2015, it was a huge relief to the those who had lived in fear of their families lives for so long.
I sat down with the Public Relations Manager from APOPO Visitor Center, Benjamin Carrichon, to learn more about the center and the amazing work they do.
Q: What is your role within APOPO?
A: I came first to open the visitor center in Siem Reap, from construction to setting up the team, setting up everything. I worked as a project manager to open up the center as well as tell the community about the center. Now, the center is running very well so I have a new position as Public Relations Manager. I make sure APOPO is still on the scene and ensure we have good connections with the tourism industry, as well as fundraising.
Q: How many landmines have the rats cleared in Cambodia so far? What are your goals for 2019 and beyond?
A: Over 500 landmines. Our goal for 2019 is to clear 2,000,000 square meters. Our ultimate goal is to be landmine free by 2025.
Q: How many rats do you have working out in the field versus here in the visitor center? Can the rats detect explosives effectively?
A: We have 6 rats in the center. In total, we have 33 rats working. We do have 20 more rats arriving in September coming from Tanzania. Yes, they are the most effective method in clearing landmines as they work a lot faster than humans can.
Q: Why rats? What kind are these? I’ve never seen any so big!
A: They are Gambian pouch rats and their size is one of the reasons we use them as they are easier to work with. We bring them over from Africa where the breeding program is. We use rats because they’re not heavy enough to set off the mine and have a very sensitive sense of smell. They’re also very intelligent, so they respond well to training and can effectively detect the particular smell of TNT even if it’s buried underground, unlike humans who would have to investigate every alert from metal detectors, which is time-consuming and not always accurate to landmines specifically.
Q: So how does training work exactly?
A: Once pups are born from successfully trained rats in the breeding program, the handlers then socialize them at around 4 weeks old when they open their eyes and introduce them to different sights, sounds and smells associated with humans. When they are weaned at 10 weeks old, they’re used to people and begin their training. This is done using a handheld clicker and food rewards to associate one with the other and then trainers begin to introduce the target smell and training gets more specific from there. Eventually, the rat will understand that detecting that particular smell of TNT, and alerting its handler, will earn it a reward.
Q: What is your favorite part about working for APOPO?
A: In addition to helping the community, it’s seeing the “wow factor” on people’s faces when they visit the center. They can see what we are doing and how we are making a difference.
Q: As tourists, how can those who travel with Wild Frontiers help you?
A: First of all, for us opening the center was really a way to promote our work. Also, to increase the public awareness around the landmine issue. Coming to the center is the first step. I think people are touched by what we do. Buying an entrance ticket to the center covers the cost of running it and the money goes back into the operation. If guests want to do more, they can adopt/sponsor a rat or give a donation. Sharing their pictures taken on social media also helps.