Cambodia's famous mine-sniffing rat retires with 71 finds

Magawa the African giant pouched rat has worked for Belgian charity Apopo for five years

After five years of sniffing out landmines and unexploded ordnance in Cambodia, hero rat Magawa is retiring.

The African giant pouched rat has been the most successful rodent trained and overseen by Belgian non-profit organisation Apopo to find landmines and alert his human handlers so the explosives can be safely removed.

Last year, Magawa won a British charity’s top civilian award for animal bravery – an honour so far reserved exclusively 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.”

Cambodian landmine detection rat, Magawa, won a PDSA Gold Medal, the animal equivalent of the George Cross, in Siem, Cambodia. AP
Cambodian landmine detection rat, Magawa, won a PDSA Gold Medal, the animal equivalent of the George Cross, in Siem, Cambodia. AP

Magawa has cleared more than 141,000 square metres of land, the equivalent of about 20 soccer fields, sniffing out 71 landmines and 38 items of unexploded ordnance, Apopo says.

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 landmine clearance.

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 he moved to Cambodia’s north-western city of Siem Reap, home of the famous Angkor temples, to begin his bomb-sniffing career.

In retirement, Magawa will live in the same cage as before and follow the same daily routine, but will not be going to the minefields any more, Lily Shallom, an Apopo spokeswoman, said at the organisation’s base in Tanzania.

He will be fed the same food, have play time every day and get regular exercise and health checks.

Ms Shallom said he eats mostly fresh fruit and vegetables, supplemented with small sun-dried fish for protein and imported pellets for vitamins and fibre.

For 20 to 30 minutes a day, he is released into a larger cage with a sandbox and a running wheel.

Apopo also has programmes in Angola, Zimbabwe and Mozambique to clear millions of mines left by wars and conflicts.

More than 60 million people in 59 countries continue to be threatened by landmines and unexploded ordinance.

In 2018, landmines and other remnants of war killed or wounded 6,897 people, the group said.

Updated: June 8, 2021 09:10 AM

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