After five years of sniffing out landmines and unexploded ordnance in Cambodia, Magawa is retiring. A bold member of a Belgian nonprofit group, Magawa is an African giant pouched rat. (See Mine-Sniffing Hero Rat.)
More than 60 million people worldwide continue to be threatened by land mines and unexploded ordnance (weapons, ammunition). In 2018, landmines and other remnants of war killed or injured 6,897 people. For over 20 years, the nonprofit group APOPO has used scent detection animals to find and disarm landmines.
In Dutch, APOPO stands for “Anti-Persoonsmijnen Ontmijnende Product Ontwikkeling.” The acronym translates to “Anti-Personnel Landmines Detection Product Development” in English.
Some of APOPO’s most valuable workers are “HeroRATs.” Thaaaat’s right—rats. The HeroRATs sniff the ground for unexploded mines. When a rat makes a find, it scratches the dirt. Then a human deminer with a metal detector confirms the rodent’s findings. A human could take up to four days to search an area that takes a rat about 30 minutes.
APOPO also trains its HeroRATs to sniff out tuberculosis.
Magawa is APOPO’s most successful HeroRAT. Last year, Magawa won a British charity’s top award for animal bravery—an honor previously bestowed only on dogs.
HeroRAT Magawa has cleared more than one and a half million square feet of land. That’s equal to about 20 soccer fields! The rat has sniffed out 71 landmines and 38 items of unexploded ordnance, according to APOPO.
God created rodents with excellent scent-detecting skills. They will also perform a task over and over for food rewards. Through research, APOPO officials discovered that African giant pouched rats’ size allows them to walk across mine fields without triggering the explosives. They can zip around much more quickly than people too. Those traits suited them well for landmine clearance.
Magawa is part of a team of rats bred for the purpose of detecting and clearing mines. He was born in Tanzania in 2014. In 2016, Magawa moved to Cambodia’s northwestern city of Siem Reap—the home of the famed Angkor temples—to begin his celebrated bomb-sniffing career.
In retirement, Magawa will live in the same cage as before and will follow the same daily routine. But Magawa won’t have to head out to the minefields anymore, says Lily Shallom, an APOPO spokeswoman. Magawa will have daily playtime, regular exercise, and health checks. For 20-30 minutes each day, the rat will work out in a larger cage equipped with a sandbox and a running wheel.
Shallom says Magawa will eat the same food too: mostly fresh fruit and vegetables—with the occasional small sun-dried fish for protein and imported pellets for vitamins and fiber.
In addition to performing rat patrol in Cambodia, APOPO also works with programs in Angola, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique. The group clears millions of mines left behind from wars and conflicts. None of APOPO’s rats have ever died as a result of their detection work.
“Although still in good health, [Magawa] has reached a retirement age and is clearly starting to slow down,” APOPO officials say. “It is time.” For Magawa, the rat race is over.
(Cambodian landmine detection rat, Magawa, wearing his PDSA Gold Medal, in Siem, Cambodia. PDSA via AP)