PHNOM PENH — Cambodia has imported 15 rats from Africa for the purpose of locating landmines and unexploded ordnance in the country, a senior landmine official told Kyodo News on Thursday.
Rats are said to have an exceptional sense of smell and are highly intelligent and easily trained. By using positive reinforcement, food treats, and training with a clicking sound, the rats can learn to identify TNT in the ground or the smell of TB in infected sputum.
The change from dogs to rats is mainly due to costs; a sniffer dog can cost $10,000 to get up to speed, while a rat is considerably cheaper.
And unlike dogs, rats don’t form any special bonds with their handlers- they are motivated almost exclusively by food, so they can work successfully with any trained person.
Obviously their size means they are much easier to transport around the countryside, too.
These are not the common rat that shuffles around in every Cambodian rubbish pile, though. They are called the Gambian pouched rat (Cricetomys gambianus), or African giant pouched rat. These are big fellows!
According to statistics provided by CMAC, more than 67,000 Cambodians were killed and injured by mines and unexploded ordnance since 1979. Last year, more than 200 people were killed and injured.
So, perhaps there is finally a reason to love a rat after all.