Award-Winning Rat Retires from Land Mine Sniffing Duties

  • Meet the heroic rodent clearing the land of human cruelty.

Rats don’t often get a lot of praise. Despite their surprising intelligence and actually high hygiene, people consider them nothing but vermin to be eradicated.

But even the most ostracized of creatures can become a hero. Magawa, an African giant pouched rat, is one of them.

Instead of roaming through sewers, Magawa has spent the last five years in Cambodia detecting land mines. After discovering 71 land mines and 38 pieces on unexploded ordnance, Magawa is now about to retire from the line of duty.

Altogether, he has safeguarded nearly 35 acres of land. That’s more than 26 football fields’ worth of area cleared from dangerous explosives.

Magawa was trained by Belgian nonprofit APOPO. The organization contributes scent detection animals for clearing landmines and detecting cases of tuberculosis.

According to the organization, Magawa’s service has been exemplary, but his age is starting to catch up to him.

“Although still in good health, he has reached a retirement age and is clearly starting to slow down. It is time,” the organization said about his retirement.

Magawa’s Cambodian handler, Malen, has nothing but praise for the heroic rodent.

“Magawa’s performance has been unbeaten, and I have been proud to work side-by-side with him. He is small but he has helped save many lives, allowing us to returns much-needed safe land back to our people as quickly and cost-effectively as possible,” said Malen.

“But he is slowing down, and we need to respect his needs. I will miss working with him!”

Photos courtesy of APOPO.

Honorably Discharged

Magawa (pronounced Ma-gow-ah) is, like most of his species, of respectable size for a rat. He’s 2.3 feet long and weighs nearly three pounds.

And indeed, it’s getting to be a high time for Magawa to retire. African pouched rats live to be roughly eight years old, and Magawa – born on November 25, 2013 in Tanzania – is almost there.

APOPO described Magawa as a determined worker with an always friendly personality.

“Magawa can search a 2,150-square-foot minefield in 20 minutes. This would take a technician with a metal detector between one and four days,” said APOPO.

During his free time, Magawa likes to gorge himself on his favorite foods – bananas and peanuts.

Over his five-year-long career, Magawa has received recognition from more than his handlers. In 2020, PDSA, a British veterinary nonprofit, gave him the PDSA Gold Medal.

The award is handed out “for animal gallantry or devotion to duty.” Magawa is the only rat in the award’s 77-year-long history to receive the distinction.

“Magawa’s work directly saves and changes the lives of men, women, and children who are impacted by … landmines. Every discovery he makes reduces the risk of injury or death for local people,” said PDSA Director General Jan McLoughlin.

“Magawa’s dedication, skill, and bravery are an extraordinary example … and deserve the highest possible recognition.”

A Glorious Company

Distinguished as he might be, Magawa is by no means the only rat detecting land mines in Cambodia. APOPO’s HeroRAT program has many more little workers on the field, and just this month, 20 more arrived in the country.

The rats’ efforts are sorely needed, as APOPO says Cambodia is the world’s second most landmine-affected country behind Afghanistan. More than 25,000 people in Cambodia have lost limbs to forgotten landmines, giving the country the dubious honor of having the highest ratio of mine amputees per capita in the world.

“HeroRATs like Magawa detect explosive chemicals and ignore uncontaminated scrap metal, making them highly efficient landmine detectors,” explained APOPO.

“Magawa and the HeroRATs are never injured on the minefield, because they are highly trained and too light to trigger landmines,” the organization added.

Making a Hero

APOPO CEO Christophe Cox explained that the nonprofit uses clicker training to teach the rats how to detect landmines. When the rat correctly identifies an explosive, its trainer will press a clicker and give the rat a tasty treat as a reward.

In total, the training period lasts about nine months. After that, the rats get to work in a real minefield, where each has its own approach to the job.

“Some rats check every square inch of the field. They have high energy and are excitable. You can tell when they’re sniffing around the air that if they were a dog, they’d be wagging their tail,” said Dr. Cynthia Fast, who leads APOPO’s training center at their headquarters in Tanzania.

The rats have a good work-life balance. They go into the field for 20 minutes to a half hour every morning, after which they get to exercise and snooze for the rest of the day.

On weekends, the rats are served a lavish meal. The dishes include watermelon, dried fish, peanuts, avocados, tomatoes, fruit, and corn.

“We take the weekend off and so do the rats. They get this huge feast — they just stuff the food into their cheeks,” Fast said.

You have to play hard when you work hard. We wish Magawa all the best for his well-deserved retirement days.