Not all heroes wear capes — and Magawa certainly doesn’t. In his five-year career, the African giant pouched rat sniffed out 71 landmines and dozens more unexploded items in Cambodia.
It’s estimated that there are still over 110 million land mines lodged in the ground, just waiting to explode. Mines can remain active for decades, posing a threat in over 60 countries. Detecting mines is also a treacherous job — which is why specially trained staff like Magawa are so important. The rats are light enough that they don’t trigger the mines.
Magawa was trained by the Belgium-registered charity Apopo. Apopo, based in Tanzania, has been raising animals (HeroRATs) to detect landmines since the 1990s. It takes about a year to certify their ability.
Animals trained thusly usually do an outstanding job at detecting mines — but even among stiff competition, Magawa is remarkable. Every 30 minutes, Magawa can sweep the equivalent of a tennis field (something which would take a human worker with a detector at least one day). In four years, he has helped to clear more than 2.4 million square feet of land. In 2020, was awarded the PDSA Gold Medal, the animal equivalent of the George Cross in the UK or Medal of Valor in the US, for his exceptional deeds. He was the first rat to be given the medal.
Now, after a stellar career, Magawa is headed for retirement.
“Although still in good health, he has reached a retirement age and is clearly starting to slow down,” the nonprofit APOPO said Thursday. Although the charity could still push him more, they’ve decided to respect his needs and give him some hard-earned rest.
“Magawa’s performance has been unbeaten, and I have been proud to work side-by-side with him,” Malen said in a statement. “He is small but he has helped save many lives allowing us to return much-needed safe land back to our people as quickly and cost-effectively as possible.”
It was a bittersweet announcement for Apopo, but the charity is determined to give animal workers the respect they deserve. Apopo only uses positive reinforcement methods for training, not punishment. They give the rats food rewards when they do a good job, and choosing the scent of explosives will earn the rats a delicious food treat.
The charity recently announced that a batch of young rats have been deemed worthy for the task, and the mine-detecting work continues.
As for Magawa, who weighs 1.2 kilos (2.6 pounds), he will now have more time to enjoy his favorite foods: bananas and peanuts.
Magawa will now head to a rat retirement home where he will be cared for and allowed to do nothing else but play and relax all day long.
Andrei's background is in geophysics, and he's been fascinated by it ever since he was a child. Feeling that there is a gap between scientists and the general audience, he started ZME Science -- and the results are what you see today.