By Mikey Jones
These clever rodents are in a rat race to clear landmines.
The creatures, dubbed HeroRATs, have been trained to sniff out landmines buried by the Khmer Rouge across Cambodia’s countryside.
The millions of mines still buried under the ground pose a massive danger to locals and any tourists exploring more remote areas.
However, the Belgian charity APOPO (Anti-Personnel Landmines Removal Product Development) has been training rats to clear the mine fields.
The giant African pouched rats, which can grow up to one metre long, have a keen sense of smell which allows them to detect the TNT explosive.
For their life-saving efforts, they are rewarded with bananas and peanuts.
Since January 2016, they have helped clear seven entire mine fields.
One of APOPO’s operations was photographed by British photojournalist Aaron ‘Bertie’ Gekoski.
Bertie, 37, said: “As a photojournalist specialising in human-animal conflict, this story made a nice change.
“For once, man isn’t killing animals. We are utilising their skills for the good of humanity.
“These images show the rats in action, demining a field outside of Siem Reap.
“The rats each have their own handler and are surprisingly fast workers, covering an area the size of a tennis court in around half an hour.
“This could take a person up to four days as metal detectors pick up all forms of fragmentation.
“They undergo extensive training at APOPO’s headquarters in Tanzania. Here, they are taught to sniff out TNT, the explosive used in landmines. They are rewarded with bananas or peanuts.”
From 1975-1979 the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, attempted to transform Cambodia into an agrarian utopia. In pursuit of the goal, they began a 30-year campaign of laying land mines during a brutal civil war.
Cambodia is now one of the most heavily mined areas in the world, with estimates as to the number of mines running as high as 10 million in a country with a population of 11.5 million.
The country is also littered with other unexploded weapons, with over half a million bombs dropped by the US Air Force that failed to detonate also lying around.
The good work of the rats was brought home to Bertie, winner of the 2017 Wildlife Photographer of the Year, Photojournalist (one shot) category, when he met several victims of land mines.
He said: “During my time there I also met some victims of landmines, one of whom, Suon Rotanna, was an amazing and inspirational character.
“A former child soldier whose parents were killed in front of him, Suon fought the Vietnamese in the jungles as a teenager, until a landmine took his leg in his 20s.
“He then had to try and integrate back into society, before having a nervous breakdown.
“After having a prosthetic leg fitted and getting his life back together, he took up work in a museum and learned English one day at a time.
“He then started up his own museum – The War Remnants Museum, outside of Siem Reap. It was Suon’s way of atoning for the past.”
To make a donation to APOPO or to adopt a HeroRAT visit www.apopo.org/adopt
Aaron’s work can be found at www.aarongekoski.com