After five years of sniffing out land mines and unexploded ordnance in Cambodia, Magawa is retiring. The African giant pouched rat has been the most successful rodent trained and overseen by a Belgian nonprofit, APOPO, to find land mines and alert its human handlers so the explosives can be safely removed.
Magawa has cleared more than 141,000 square meters (1.5 million square feet) of land, the equivalent of some 20 soccer fields, sniffing out 71 land mines and 38 items of unexploded ordnance, according to APOPO. And for the first time, it won a British charity’s top civilian award for animal bravery last year, an honour so far exclusively reserved for dogs.
“Although still in good health, he has reached a retirement age and is clearly starting to slow down,” APOPO said. “It is time.” While many rodents can be trained to detect scents and will work at repetitive tasks for food rewards, APOPO decided that African giant pouched rats were best suited to land mine clearance because their size allows them to walk across minefields without triggering the explosives – and do it much more quickly than people. They also live up to eight years.
Magawa is part of a cohort of rats bred for this purpose. He was born in Tanzania in 2014, and in 2016, moved to Cambodia’s northwestern city of Siem Reap, home of the famed Angkor temples, to begin his bomb-sniffing career. APOPO also works with programs in Angola, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique to clear millions of mines left behind from wars and conflicts.
More than 60 million people in 59 countries continue to be threatened by land mines and unexploded ordinances. In 2018, landmines and other remnants of war killed or injured 6,897 people, the group says.