A Hero Retires
By Michael Gregson
Rats are often associated with disease and scavenging for food through garbage. But one rodent has given rats a much improved reputation.
Born in Tanzania, Magawa is an African giant pouched rat who has been detecting deadly unexploded ordnance lying hidden in the jungles and open fields across Cambodia, the second most landmine-affected country in the world after Afghanistan.
But after five years at the top, it’s retirement for one of the most successful rodents ever trained in finding landmines.
Magawa has cleared more than 141,000 square metres of land, the equivalent of some 20 football pitches, sniffing out 71 land mines and 38 items of unexploded ordnance, according to Belgian non-profit APOPO, which trained the rat to find land mines and alert its human handlers so the explosives can be safely removed.
And for the first time, it won a British charity’s top civilian award for animal bravery last year, an honour so far exclusively reserved 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.”
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 because 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, moved to Cambodia’s north-western city of Siem Reap, home of the famed Angkor temples, to begin his bomb-sniffing career.
APOPO said a new batch of young rats had been assessed by the Cambodian Mine Action Centre (CMAC) and passed “with flying colours”.
Magawa will stay in post for a few more weeks to “mentor” the new recruits and help them settle in.
“Magawa’s performance has been unbeaten, and I have been proud to work side-by-side with him,” said his handler Malen. “He is small but he has helped save many lives allowing us to return much-needed safe land back to our people as quickly and cost-effectively as possible.”
He weighs 1.2kg (2.6lb) and is 70cm (28in) long. While that is far larger than many other rat species, Magawa is still small enough and light enough that he does not trigger mines if he walks over them.
The rats are trained to detect a chemical compound within the explosives, meaning they ignore scrap metal and can search for mines more quickly. Once they find an explosive, they scratch the top to alert their human co-workers.
Magawa is capable of searching a field the size of a tennis court in just 20 minutes – something APOPO says would take a person with a metal detector between one and four days.
APOPO also works with programs in Angola, Zimbabwe and Mozambique to clear millions of mines left behind from wars and conflicts.
More than 60 million people in 59 countries – including Sri Lanka – continue to be threatened by landmines and unexploded ordnance. In 2018, landmines and other remnants of war killed or injured nearly 7,000 people across the world.
In Sri Lanka figures show that since the 1980s, 22,193 people have died from landmines and other explosive devices. However it is believed that many deaths have gone unreported especially during periods of heavy fighting during the civil war.
The northern areas of the country have one of the heaviest concentrations of landmines in the world, planted by both the military and the LTTE. While the military for the most part have records of where they laid mines and thus are able to clear them, the mines laid by the LTTE are discovered only by chance. The Indian Peacekeeping Forces that were in the country from July 1987 to January 1990 also laid mines. Most of the mines in the north and east are found on civilian land.
According to the Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor initiative, from 2010 to 2018, estimated contamination in Sri Lanka fell from 506 square kilometres to 25.8 square kilometres. A further 17 square kilometres remains to be demined. The Batticaloa district was declared mine free in 2017, with only residual contamination. The plan is to have a mine free country by 2023.