Magawa with his trainer Malen. Photo courtesy of APOPO
A famous landmine-hunting “hero rat” will retire this month due to old age after a stellar five-year career in which he located 71 mines and 38 pieces of unexploded ordnance in Cambodia, according to the charity that cares for him.From bombs dropped during the Vietnam War to decades of civil conflict that followed the ouster of the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s, Cambodia remains one of the most heavily mined countries in the world.
But it has made enormous progress in recent years thanks to brave Cambodian deminers, aid for programs, and innovative training methods. Small animals like Magawa, a 7-year-old giant African pouched rat, have also played a big part.Born in Tanzania and trained by Belgian non-profit organization APOPO, which teaches African giant pouched rats to detect landmines and even diseases like tuberculosis, Magawa rose to international fame in September when he was awarded a gold medal by the British charity People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA), the animal equivalent of the George Cross. He became the first rat in the charity’s history to receive the prestigious award.“Magawa’s life-changing work has had a direct impact on the lives of many men, women and children in Cambodia affected by landmines,” said the group’s director-general Jan McLoughlin during a virtual prize ceremony at the time. “His dedication, skill and bravery are extraordinary examples and deserve the highest possible recognition.”But in a statement this week, APOPO said Magawa was “slowing down” and would retire after a new group of 20 landmine detection rats arrived in Cambodia in March.The group added that he would “mentor” and settle in the new recruits before taking a bow. “We allow our rats to work as long as they are performing well, still feel like working, and pass weekly health checks,” a spokeswoman told VICE World News.
“When a rat no longer greets us eagerly and shows signs of aging, their performance declines. Magawa is 7 years old and our rats typically reach retirement at that age.”
APOPO confirmed that Magawa was not suffering from health issues other than a minor “paw injury” and said he would live out the rest of his life eating bananas and peanuts in their kennels. A retirement party was also being planned. His handler Malen said: “Magawa’s performance has been unbeaten. He is small but he has helped save many lives but he is slowing down and has been taking longer naps recently so we need to respect his needs.” She added that she would miss working with him very, very much. Follow Heather Chen on Twitter.