Rats vs Landmines: A Stop at the APOPO Visitor Center in Cambodia

In the shadow of the glorious Angkor Wat temple, amidst the bustling charm of Siem Reap, lies an unusual but no less important attraction: the APOPO Visitor Center. Rather than focusing on Cambodia’s majestic architecture and history, here the stars are a team of cute, twitchy African giant pouched rats, which APOPO trains to detect deadly landmines lurking beneath the ground.

Managed by Sambat Meas, the APOPO Visitor Center is part of a unique global initiative that employs these rats, otherwise known as HeroRATs, to sniff out the explosives used to set off landmines. The landmines are remnants of Cambodia’s 20th century conflicts and while it is now safe for tourists to visit the country, daily life in its rural areas is still fraught with danger.

Sambat gives a guided tour at the Visitor Center in Siem Reap

Sambat, originally from the Cambodian city of Battambang, joined APOPO in 2017. He is now at the helm of the Visitor Center (VC), which educates Cambodian and international visitors about APOPO’s innovative solution to the tragic legacy that still scars the country.

From Curiosity to Commitment

Sambat’s journey with APOPO began with a presentation by a volunteer, introducing him to the concept of HeroRATs. “I was amazed how the rats can use their sense of smell to detect landmines and save lives,” he recalls. The Cambodian Mine Action Centre (CMAC) estimates that there may be as many as six million landmines and other pieces of unexploded ordnance across Cambodia. The introduction of APOPO’s detection rats, capable of safely and efficiently identifying landmines without setting them off, sparked Sambat’s interest and he was initially hired as a Tour Guide for the Visitor Center.

A Typical Day at the Visitor Center

Managing the APOPO VC is no small task. With around 17 tours conducted daily, Sambat’s routine involves meticulous planning and constant problem-solving. From ensuring the rats’ health and welfare to managing a growing team of staff, his days are packed. However, it’s the opportunity to educate and inspire that Sambat finds most rewarding.

What captures the visitors’ interest the most, according to Sambat, are the demonstrations of the rats’ landmine-detection skills. Seeing them at work challenges visitors’ preconceptions about rats and highlights their contribution to humanitarian work. “People most enjoy seeing the rats in action,” Sambat says, noting the transformation in visitors’ perceptions from scepticism to admiration. Visitors also get a chance to handle and take pictures with the adorable APOPO rats. “Everyone walks out of the door with their minds changed. Some people who arrive hate rats, but then they end the tour loving our rats!”

Rat handler shows HeroRAT to the crowd  at the APOPO Vsitor Center

Beyond Landmine Detection

APOPO’s impact in Cambodia extends beyond mine clearance. The organisation is deeply involved in community work, from mine risk education initiatives to supporting local farmers in post-clearance areas. The VC itself is an embodiment of sustainable practices and community support. Every team member is hired and trained locally and the VC promotes local artisans and environmentally friendly policies. For Sambat, this broader contribution is an important part of APOPO’s presence in Cambodia.

A Visit to Siem Reap’s Past and a View of its Future

Sambat believes the APOPO Visitor Center is more than just a tourist attraction; it’s a way of understanding the complexities of Cambodia’s past and the innovative strides being made towards a safer future. He believes that visitors to Siem Reap, drawn by its historical allure, should also make time for the contemporary African heroes contributing to the nation’s recovery. “Siem Reap is the spot to stop for history,” he says, “but APOPO and the HeroRATs are focused on a safe future for Cambodia.”

APOPO rat handlers demonstrate at the visitor center in Cambodia

If you are fortunate enough to be travelling to Cambodia in the near future, make sure to take a tour of the APOPO Visitor Center. You won’t be disappointed!