We’ve seen many stories of animals becoming true heroes, dedicating their lives to protecting people from serious danger. But sometimes, those heroes come in unexpectedly small packages.
Like one very smart rat, who has made a huge difference in his career detecting explosive landmines in the fields of Cambodia. And now, after years of incredible service to humanity, he’s taking a well-deserved retirement.
The country of Cambodia has a major 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 some unlikely heroes have stepped up to combat this problem by detecting the mines: rats.
Nonprofit group APOPO has been training rats, known as HeroRATs, 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.
One of these rats is named Magawa, who proved to be perfect for the job and has been detecting mines for over five years. Magawa, an 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.
With his excellent sense of smell he sniffs out the chemicals in the TNT, then signals to his handler who disposes the mine, saving people from serious harm.
“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.”
“He is very quick and decisive, but he is also the first one to take a nap during a break.”
Magawa was the most successful of all the HeroRATs, proving that these little guys can make a huge difference. According to APOPO, Magawa found 71 landmines and 38 items of unexploded ordinance.
“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.
He has proven decisively that heroes can come in small packages. Rats aren’t typically thought of as particularly heroic, and are often associated with being sneaky or untrustworthy, but Magawa has shown just how brave a rat can be.
And last year, he received a major honor: became the first rat ever to receive the PDSA Gold Medal, which rewards “civilian acts of animal bravery and exceptional devotion to duty.”
“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.”
But after five years of helping to protect lives by detecting landmines, Magawa’s incredible career is coming to an end.
APOPO announced this week that Magawa, while still in good health, would be ending his services this month after reaching retirement age, saying he is “clearly starting to slow down.”
“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!”
But as the most successful and famous HeroRAT in the program, Magawa’s impact will be felt long after he’s headed into the sunset, as a role model for the next generation.
“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!”
Thank you to Magawa for all your years of incredible hard work and service that has helped save countless lives. Wishing you the best on a well-deserved retirement!
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