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Hero Landmine-Sniffing Rats Are Saving Human Lives in Africa

Rats are normally classified as vermin, but they can be heroes too. Proving the fact is APOPO, a Belgian NGO that trains African giant pouched rats to sniff out landmines and tuberculosis infections. Since 2006, these ‘hero rats’ have been working on minefields in Mozambique, clearing the country of over 13,000 landmines, thus reclaiming over 11 million square meters of land. They’ve also accurately analyzed over a quarter of a million blood samples for TB infections.

Bart Weetjens, founder of APOPO, first came up with the idea of training sniffer rats a couple of decades ago, when he was a student at the University of Antwerp. He used to keep pet rodents as a boy, so he knew that they were “very trainable, sociable, and intelligent creatures.” So when he read an article about gerbils being taught to recognise the scent of explosives, it got him thinking.

Weetjens wanted to use his experience of dealing with rodents to find a locally-sourced resolution to the problem of landmines. “I was looking for an appropriate solution that communities at the bottom of the pyramid could use, independent from expensive foreign know-how and technology,” he said. So he placed himself in the situation of the people affected by the problem, and looked at the resources they had at hand.

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Former Khmer Rouge Child Soldier Has Spent the Last Two Decades Cleaning Cambodia of Mines, Alone and without Protection

Modern Cambodian hero Aki Ra has made it his life’s mission to rid his nation of land mines. The one-man army spends most of his day chopping vegetation in fields and delicately prodding the areas that set off his metal detector. More often than not, he uncovers hockey-puck sized antipersonnel land mines, and destroys them with a controlled explosion. “I want to make my country safe for my people,” he said.

There was a time when Cambodia was plagued by over six million land mines buried underground in paddy fields and lush jungles, ready to indiscriminately murder soldiers and innocent children alike. The devices were once used by the nation’s warring factions, including the notorious Khmer Rouge, to finish their enemies.

Aki Ra, who used to be a child soldier for Khmer Rouge, has spent over 22 years of his life single-handedly removing land mines that were left behind unexploded. Between 1992 and 2007, he was able to rid his homeland of a whopping 50,000 mines, armed with nothing but a pocket knife, pliers, a stick, and his bare hands.

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