- One of the most successful bomb-sniffing rats of all time, Magawa, is retiring after five years of service.
- The trained African rat uncovered over 100 explosive devices during his career.
- Seven-year-old Magawa may be calling it quits, but a new generation of trained rodents is ready to take his place.
Magawa the rat is retiring. And while most rats step away from their active careers with little to no fanfare, this rodent is a bit different: he’s directly responsible for saving the lives of untold numbers of men, women, and children. Magawa—who spent five years (2016-2021) sniffing out hazardous, unexploded weapons of war dotting the Cambodian countryside—is credited with leading his handlers to more than 100 buried explosive devices.
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This hero is a Gambian pouched rat. Gambian rats are larger than North American rats, often growing up to 3-feet long (including their long, whip-like tail). Native to sub-Saharan Africa, the rats are generally gentle animals and often kept as pets.
Like many rodents, Gambian rats have poor eyesight, but make up for it with an exceptional sense of smell. Magawa’s trainers at the Belgian nonprofit APOPO taught him to sniff out military-grade explosives. The rat is essentially a living sensor, capable of detecting land mines, bombs, and other explosives.
Militaries plant land mines in “fields,” slowing down the advance of enemy forces. In that respect, mines are useful tools of war. The problem is that minefields are notoriously difficult to clean up—armies often lose track of them, and civilians often wander through idle battlefields to scavenge scrap metals or even begin farming.
Minefields have proven especially deadly in postwar Cambodia. Experts believe that military forces left behind somewhere between 4 and 6 million idle land mines at the close of the Cambodian Civil War. Between 1979 and 2020, abandoned mines and other explosive devices killed 19,789 Cambodians and injured or maimed 45,102 others.
Magawa completed his training in Africa, and then traveled to Cambodia, where he spent five years searching for whiffs of explosives. In his half-decade career, the big rat “helped clear over 225,000 square metres of land,” according to APOPO.
All in all, he led his handlers to 71 land mines and 38 other items of unexploded ordinance. In September 2020, the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals, a U.K.-based veterinary organization, awarded Magawa a gold medal for his service (see top photo).
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This rat was not only good at his job, but he did it more safely than a human could. At 2.6 pounds, he is too light to trigger the pressure plate on an anti-personnel mine. Placed on a leash, Magawa could wander ahead of a human into dangerous territory without worry he might cause an explosion.
Magawa is seven years old, and the average age of a Gambian pouched rat is between six and eight years. His handlers report that he is slowing down, so he has earned a gentle retirement. But a new generation is already in place to take over: in March, APOPO sent 20 newly trained rats to Cambodia. All reportedly passed their sniff tests with flying colors.
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