He detected 78 undetonated landmines & 38 unexploded ordinances & helped clear an estimated 225,000 square feet of land.
A heroic African pouched rat passed away on Sunday at 8 years old. The rat, named Magawa, detected over 100 explosives in Cambodia over his five-year career. Upon his retirement, he became the first rat to receive the United Kingdom’s PDSA Gold medal, the animal equivalent of the George Cross.
Magawa, along with many brethren, was trained to sniff out buried landmines and other undetonated explosives and then alert his handlers with the Belgian APOPO charity. The charity has also trained the giant pouched rats to detect tuberculosis.
Magawa proved to be one of their most successful and productive ‘hero rats.’ Across his five-year career working in Cambodia, he detected 78 undetonated landmines and 38 unexploded ordinances and helped clear an estimated 225,000 square feet of land.
Through a series of internal and external conflicts, landmines and other explosives dotted the Cambodian countryside from 1975 through 1998. The threat of explosives on agricultural land has injured tens of thousands in the region and limited the usable land in the country.
Magawa’s ability to identify and clear explosives earned him the respect of his handlers and those that came into contact with him. He was the most prolific hero rat employed by the Cambodian government. His remarkable physical strength also allowed him to search more land every day than other hero rats performing the same function.
In a 2017 video, Magawa’s handler says that “every time a rat finds a mine, it is like saving a life.”
Hulk Philly, a farmer in Knab Toll village, Cambodia, whose land was cleared by deminers aided by the trained hero rats, expressed his gratitude to the animals
“Every time I step out of the house, I was scared for my life,” said Philly, adding that, “Before deminers came here, we feared for our children’s lives.”
Philly revealed that seeing the hero rats at work led to dietary changes in the area. “In the past, we used to eat rats all the time, but ever since I saw with my own eyes how rats detect landmines, I stopped eating them,” he said.
Magawa was retired from demining in June 2021. His handlers had noticed he was slowing down and after contributing so much, decided he had more than earned his retirement.
Giant African pouched rats are deemed perfect for landmine detection as, with their poor vision, they have a highly developed sense of smell and memory. They are also light enough that they do not set off landmines. The rats are trained to smell TNT and then dig to alert their handlers to explosives.
The rats can search an area the size of a tennis court in 30 minutes, an area that used to take a person with a metal detector up to four days to complete. The hero rats are not only highly effective at their job, but they’re also noticeably more cost-effective. It costs approximately $7,300 to train one rat, according to reports, compared to an estimated $25,000 to train a dog to detect landmines.