Landmine Detecting Superstar Magawa Retires

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Magawa has been extremely successful at sniffing out landmines and other concealed explosives in Cambodia (Credit; Apopo.org)

Magawa, an African giant pouched rat trained to sniff out concealed explosive devices, has retired. The rodent, who received British veterinary charity PDSA's gold medal for bravery in 2020, was one of Belgian non-profit APOPO's most successful HeroRATs. During his illustrious five-year career, Magawa discovered more than 71 landmines and helped clear over 2,420,000 sq. feet (225,000 sq. meters) of land in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

His handler, Malen, said: “Magawa’s performance has been unbeaten, and I have been proud to work side-by-side with him. He is small, but he has helped save many lives allowing us to returns 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!”

Born in Tanzania in 2013, Magawa is one of the hundreds of African giant pouched rats APOPO has bred and trained since the 1990s. The nonprofit — which teaches the animals by rewarding them with treats each time they accomplish a task — says the intelligent rodents are ideal for the dangerous job. They are easy to train and light enough to walk across the minefields without triggering the hidden explosives. The animals' ability to sniff out the chemicals in landmines makes them more efficient at the task than human-held detectors that beep at every scrap of metal.

Magawa with his handler, Malen (Credit: Apopo.org)

Landmines are concealed devices designed to explode when a person or vehicle passes over or near them. They were first used in World War II to protect strategic areas, such as borders and bridges, and to restrict the movement of opposing forces. Since then, landmines have been deployed in numerous conflicts, including the Vietnam War, the Korean War, and the first Gulf War.

While the location of each device was carefully marked and mapped during the early years, things became a little lax as the practice continued. This made it impossible to locate and extract the dangerous explosives once the conflicts had ended. Today, over 60 million people living in 59 countries — from Angola to Cambodia — live in daily fear of landmines and other dangerous remnants of past wars. Hopefully, with brave detection rodents like Magawa hard at work, the threats will soon be removed.

Resources: Apopo.org, NPR.org

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