Rats are heroes. Seriously: not only are they responsible members of the community, they also lend a paw in curbing the illegal wildlife trade (and they can make a mean Provençal dish if you’re OK with a bit of hair-pulling).
Landmines are a serious problem in Cambodia: the country is home to literally millions of them. Dozens of people, many of them children, are still killed every year by mines and unexploded ordnance left by various factions and governments during the second half of the 20th century. Many hundreds more are left severely disabled.
And that’s where Magawa comes in. Born in Tanzania in 2014, Magawa was trained to use his incredible sense of smell to sniff out explosives – something that would otherwise have to be done by a human with a metal detector. He moved to Cambodia to start work as a mine-sniffer in 2016, and he has done a frankly incredible job, finding 71 landmines and 38 pieces of unexploded ordnance over the past five years. He was even awarded an adorable tiny gold medal (the first rat in the program to do so) in October last year, recognizing his “… most conspicuous courage in circumstance of extreme danger”.
But now, at the ripe old age of 7, it’s time for Magawa to retire. African giant pouched rats only live for about 8 years on average, and since he’s helped clear over 225,000 square meters (nearly 2.5 million square feet) of land, the little guy has earned a rest.
“Magawa’s performance has been unbeaten, and I have been proud to work side-by-side with him,” said Malen, Magawa’s handler, 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. But he is slowing down, and we need to respect his needs. I will miss working with him!”
APOPO, the organization that taught Magawa and his rat buddies to find mines, says that African giant pouched rats can scour an area the size of a tennis court for mines in a mere 30 minutes, while a human deminer might take up to four days for the same job. This is because the rats are taught to go after the scent of the chemicals inside the mine, so they don’t get distracted by any of the random pieces of non-explosive scrap that would ping a metal detector.
The project has seen amazing success. Last year alone, the furry little lifesavers helped clear nearly 4.4 million square meters (about 1.7 square miles) of land, saving potentially thousands of lives in the process.
Magawa will now become a mentor for the newest recruits before settling down for a life of eating peanuts and bananas in their rat kennels, and even has a retirement party planned, APOPO told Vice.
While Magawa enjoys his well-deserved retirement, APOPO and their latest cohorts of ratty recruits are working hard to help make Cambodia mine-free by 2025 – pretty good for a country that once had more landmines than people.