Meet the Retiring Rat Hero Who Saves Lives From Landmines

For five years, a heroic soul has been crisscrossing rice fields and open spaces in Cambodia, searching for unexploded landmines left over from the Cambodian Civil War and the Vietnam War. During his tenure, he’s cleared some 225,000 square meters and detected 71 landmines, and 38 additional pieces of unexploded ordinance. Who knows how many lives he’s saved.

Oh, and he’s a rat.

Not just any rat, though. His name is Magawa, and he’s a giant pouched rat. He was born in Tanzania in 2013 and trained by an organization called APOPO, which teaches rats and dogs to sniff out mines and bombs. He’s hit retirement age, and though his handlers say he’s in fine health, they say he’s slowing down a bit and is ready for a life of leisure in his golden years.

Rats like Magawa have poor eyesight, but a terrific sense of smell. They’re too light to trigger the mines and move quickly, much faster than a human “deminer” can. “That’s why we came up with the idea of using rats, because rats are fast,” said APOPO’s CEO, Christophe Cox. “They can screen an area of 200 square meters in half an hour – something which would take a manual deminer four days.”

When Magawa finds a mine he alerts his handler by scratching at the dirt. The handler offers Magawa his reward, a sweet banana.

APOPO’s rats go through extensive training and are so trusted, the handler teams often play soccer matches in recently cleared fields.

Magawa received Britain’s highest animal award last year, the UK charity group PDSA’s gold medal. He wears the tiny medal when he works, the gold glinting and dangling from his little harness.

But now, he’ll hang that medal over his little rat mantle, kick back on a rocking chair and enjoy some well deserved rest.


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