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Magawa, Rat That Hunted Land Mines, Dies in Retirement

Magawa, a rat who spent most of his life sniffing out land mines in Cambodia and was recognized for his lifesaving contributions, died last weekend, the nonprofit that trained him said in a statement on Tuesday.

The African giant pouched rat was part of the “HeroRAT” initiative run by the Belgian nonprofit APOPO, which works across Southeast Asia and Africa, training rats to detect land mines and tuberculosis.

Over the course of a yearslong career with APOPO, Magawa found more than 100 land mines and other pieces of unexploded ordnance, the nonprofit organization said, describing him as the most successful rat in the program to date.

Magawa’s achievements were honored in 2020 when he received a gold medal bestowed by the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals, a British charity, that is often called the “animals’ George Cross” after a British honor usually given to civilians for acts of bravery and heroism. He was the first rodent recipient of the award in the charity’s history.

“He was a truly exemplary HeroRAT and a very worthy recipient of our PDSA Gold Medal, which recognizes civilian animals who have shown true bravery and exceptional devotion to duty,” Rebecca Buckingham, the awards manager at the British charity, said in a statement on Tuesday. “His legacy will live on for decades to come, in the lives he has helped to save through his incredible work detecting land mines in Cambodia.”

Magawa was born in Tanzania in November 2013, APOPO said, though earlier news releases from the organization put his birth date as a year later. After receiving specialized training, he was moved to Siem Reap in Cambodia in 2016 to begin his career.

Land mines laid in Cambodia during decades of conflict have caused more than 64,000 casualties, according to the HALO Trust, a land mine clearance charity.

Parts of the country are also littered with unexploded ordnance dropped in U.S. airstrikes during the Vietnam War, a 2019 report from the Congressional Research Service found.

APOPO’s so-called “HeroRATs” are trained to detect the explosive TNT, and can search an area the size of a tennis court in 30 minutes. The same work would usually take a person with a metal detector four days.

When the rats find a mine, they signal to their handler by scratching at the earth above it. Their light weight means they are able to avoid detonating mines, unlike humans, so there is minimal risk of injury.

Magawa, who was said to have been partial to treats of watermelon, banana and peanuts when not sniffing for mines, was taken off duty last year to much fanfare from the world’s news media. APOPO said he had remained in good health during his retirement up until his last days, when he appeared to slow down and lose his appetite.

“Magawa will leave a lasting legacy in the lives that he saved as a land mine detection rat in Cambodia,” APOPO said in a statement honoring him that was published on its website.

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