Magawa, heroic rat who saved lives by detecting landmines in Cambodia, has died

Heroes come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes it’s animals who can do the most incredible things to save countless lives — even an animal as small as a rat.

That was the story of Magawa, a rat who was hailed as a hero for his years of service detecting landmines in Cambodia. Over the course of his incredible career, this rat proved that even the smallest creatures can do great things.

Sadly, the famous rat recently passed away at the age of 8, but his life-saving legacy and impact lives on.

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For decades, country of Cambodia has a drastic problem with landmines: millions were placed during decades of war since the ’70s, and there is still an estimated 3 million unfound.

These mines continue to cause destruction: over 64,000 people have been severely injured by landmines.

But nonprofit group APOPO enlisted an unlikely but crucial ally in the fight against landmine injuries: rats.

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The rats, known as HeroRATs, are specially trained to detect land mines. They are perfect for the job because they can quickly find the mines but are too light to set them off.

Magawa emerged as the most successful of the HeroRATs. The African giant pouched rat was born in Tanzania in November 2013, and started on the job in Cambodia in 2016 after three years of training.

Magawa’s job consisted of sniffing out the chemicals in TNT and signaling to his handler, who disposed the mine.

“He is very special to me,” Magawa’s main handler Malen said, according to the New York Times. “He has found many land mines in his career and saved many lives of the Cambodian people.”

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“He is very quick and decisive, but he is also the first one to take a nap during a break.”

Magawa became the most successful of the HeroRATs, detecting 100 explosives, making a huge difference in the lives of Cambodians.

“Over the past five years he has helped clear over 225,000 square metres of land, allowing local communities to live, work, play and be educated; without fear of losing life or limb,” APOPO wrote.

In 2020, Magawa received a huge honor for his service: he received the PDSA Gold Medal, one of the highest honors for a service animal, becoming the first rat to ever receive the award.

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“Magawa’s work directly saves and changes the lives of men, women and children who are impacted by these land mines,” said Jan McLoughlin, the director general of the charity, during the virtual ceremony. “Every discovery he makes reduces the risk of injury or death for local people.”

“Magawa’s dedication, skill and bravery are an extraordinary example of this and deserve the highest possible recognition.”

After five years of service, APOPO announced last June that Magawa would be retiring: although he was still in good health, he had reached retirement age.

As his career came to a close, he was hailed as the most successful HeroRAT and the role model for future mine-detecting rats.

“Magawa will stay for a few more weeks to mentor and settle the new recruits before he takes a bow,” APOPO wrote. “Magawa will certainly make the best mentor a HeroRAT could have, during the new recruits’ first few weeks of work!”

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“Magawa’s performance has been unbeaten, and I have been proud to work side-by-side with him,” Magawa’s handler Malen told APOPO.

“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!”

Sadly, Magawa has passed away, APOPO announced yesterday, saying he “passed away peacefully” over the weekend. Magawa was 8-years-old, having celebrated his birthday in November.

“Magawa was in good health and spent most of last week playing with his usual enthusiasm, but towards the weekend he started to slow down, napping more and showing less interest in food in his last days,” APOPO wrote in an Instagram post.

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They paid tribute to the huge difference this rat made in his lifetime, saying they were “grateful for the incredible work he’s done” during his career.

“His contribution allows communities in Cambodia to live, work, and play; without fear of losing life or limb,” APOPO wrote.

“It is thanks to all of you that Magawa will leave a lasting legacy in the lives that he saved as a landmine detection rat in Cambodia. Thank you all, from the bottom of our hearts, for your support during this difficult time.”

Rest in peace, Magawa. Thank you for all your hard work over the years to save lives. Your legacy will live on, reminding everyone that even the smallest creatures can be heroes.

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