The “hero rats” of Siem Reap

Looking for something to do in Siem Reap that’s just a little bit different? Consider going to visit the APOPO hero rats of Temple Town and see how these giant rats are trained to sniff out landmines in Cambodia.

hero rats Siem Reap
This bad boy hero rat is capable of sniffing out landmines across Cambodia.

The idea of a “hero rat” may sound strange, since rats are traditionally thought of as carriers of disease, laboratory subjects, or class pets fostered out to students on the weekend until being accidentally flushed down the toilet by a particularly hyperactive child. Yes, the humble rat is rarely given credit for being the intelligent mammal it really is, capable of both learning and altruistic behavior.

Those talents are being nurtured by APOPO, a nonprofit organization started in Antwerp in 1997 by Bart Weetjens and Christophe Cox, who had the idea of using rats’ ability as scent detectors to find landmines and other unexploded ordnance that remain buried in places recovering from war. APOPO’s first training facility for mine-detecting rats opened in 2000 in Tanzania.

Cambodia landmines APOPO center
Landmines are still an issue in some parts of Cambodia, and there are rats to the rescue!

At the same time, researchers discovered another way rats are able to save lives: they can be trained to sniff out TB infections, often earlier and more effectively than conventional diagnostic methods. Subsequently APOPO and its rats began operations in Mozambique, and then in Angola and Thailand. Today APOPO and its rats are at work in Laos and Vietnam as well as several African countries.

And in Cambodia. In 2014 APOPO began helping with demining in the Kingdom, where unexploded ordnance left over from the war is still a daily threat in some rural areas. Four years later the organization opened a visitor center in Siem Reap, where the public can see first hand the work of these furry little humanitarians.  

APOPO demining rats
A visit to the center allows you to see how the rats are trained to become little bomb-sniffing dynamos.

Visit the center and you’ll learn how the rats are trained and the types of environments they work in. The animals are handled with the utmost professionalism, and their work, which saves both life and limb, is why they’ve been dubbed “hero rats.”

For me the high point was when one  of the rats was brought out to show how it can sniff out a hidden explosive shell (empty, in this case). APOPO uses African giant pouched rats because of their intelligence and longevity, and they are really cute (and very large) as well as very good at what they do. It’s because of their vital work that they have been dubbed “hero rats.”  

A video shown after the live demonstration goes into greater detail about APOPO’s work in Cambodia, including the stories of landmine victims and of locals who have found employment with the organization. The staff’s obvious love for the rats and the fact that they are doing such crucial work makes the APOPO center a more uplifting attraction than most other points of interest in Cambodia that focus on the war.

APOPO Visitor Center

Monday to Saturday, 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
T: 081 599 237
Sangkat Kouk Chak, Siem Reap [map]

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