Magawa’s Journey: Cambodia’s Landmine-Sniffing “Hero” Rat in Retirement

by Matthew Escosia
SEA Wave - Magawa Rat
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By: Niel Anthony Lajot


Marvel fans all across the world went gaga over the release of Spiderman: No Way Home and Eternals early this year, showing us that superheroes do have a special place in our hearts. But, earlier this week, an unsung superhero has fallen. We have lost Magawa.

For the very first time, we are putting the SEAtizens spotlight on an animal, Magawa—the African giant pouched rat of Cambodia who earned world-recognition for his work detecting deadly land mines.

Dubbed as a “hero rat,” Magawa has sniffed out more than 100 land mines and other explosives under his belt in five years. He was recognized for saving lives in Cambodia and has received the highest medal for animal bravery, the PDSA Gold Medal.

Let us all look back at how this pocket-sized animal has left a lasting legacy for many.

SEA Wave - Magawa Rat

Photo from Reuters

Magawa was born in Tanzania and moved to Siem Reap, Cambodia in 2016 to serve as a landmine detector.

Due to decades of civil strife, Cambodia is one of the world’s most frequently mined countries. According to Reuters, there are more than 40,000 amputees in the country who have lost limbs due to explosives. During Cambodia’s civil war, which lasted from 1975 to 1998, an estimated 5 million land mines were planted, mostly in the northern area near the Thai border, making agricultural land hazardous to farm and affecting populations and livelihoods. There are still 386 square kilometers of contaminated land.

Magawa was trained by Apopo, a Belgian-registered NGO located in Tanzania that has been producing landmine-detecting animals known as HeroRATs since the 1990s. He was top of his class in learning to detect a chemical compound within landmines and other explosives. After a year of training, he was certified.

SEA Wave - Magawa Rat

Photo from PDSA

Magawa was trained to warn people about the mines, and he performed such an excellent job that he found over 100 of them, allowing them to be safely removed.

In a five-year career that began in 2016, he inspected 1.5 million square feet of land, sniffing a tennis court-sized field in 20 minutes — a task that would take metal detectorists up to four days. Magawa was the “most successful” mine-clearing rat, having discovered 71 land mines and 38 unexploded ordinances.

He weighed 1.2 kg and was 70 cm in length, making him far larger than other rat species, yet he was light enough not to set off a mine if he walked on one.

In 2020, the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals, a British veterinary organization, honored Magawa with a gold medal for his lifesaving efforts. He was the first rat to be honored with this distinction.

Magawa is shown smelling landmines, eating fruits, and playing around in a video posted by Reuters on Twitter. Over 81,000 people have seen the video. Magawa’s achievements were appreciated by the online community, and several people conveyed their sympathies. A user wrote, “RIP to a legend.”

Last June 2021, Magawa retired and shortly after, he died on January 8, 2022. Due to his advanced age, Magawa’s handlers had seen a deterioration in his agility and mobility. At the time of his death, the animal was eight years old, or the equal of one hundred in human years.

“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, the organization that trained Magawa, said in a statement.

Magawa, the most successful “HeroRAT” deployed by international charity APOPO will forever be remembered. Through his extraordinary efforts finding land mines in Cambodia, his legacy will live on for decades to come in the lives he has helped to save– a true SEAtizen.

While Mawaga might not be our typical superhero, what are your thoughts on the animal’s heroism? Let us know in the comments section.

SEA Wave magazine’s SEAtizens initiative is a series of inspiring stories of people in Southeast Asia who champion the human spirit by demonstrating courage, ingenuity, generosity, and selflessness.

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