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Friday, January 27, 2023

World’s Most Heroic Rat Retires After Finding More Than 70 Landmines

In 2019, Homeland Security Today sponsored Magawa, a landmine-sniffing rat helping to save lives and protect communities in Cambodia. Magawa’s “employer” APOPO has now announced that the four legged hero will retire this June.

During his illustrious five-year career, HeroRAT Magawa’s work has directly saved the lives of men, women and children who were impacted by hidden landmines and other deadly remnants of war. Every discovery he made reduced the risk of injury or death for the people of Cambodia. Magawa is an African giant pouched rat that was born in Tanzania in November 2013. Since 2000, APOPO has developed its operational headquarters, training and breeding center at the Sokoine University of Agriculture (SUA) where all the landmine detection rats are born and trained. This is also home to APOPO’s Innovation department that researches and develops the innovative applications and advanced techniques used in existing operations. This is where he learned how to find explosives using his amazing sense of smell. Magawa then moved to Siem Reap in Cambodia in 2016, where he began his successful career.

To date Magawa has found 71 landmines and 38 items of unexploded ordnance, making him APOPO’s most successful HeroRAT. 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.

Last September, veteran Magawa was formally presented with a suitably rat-sized PDSA Gold Medal – the animal equivalent of the George Cross – by the PDSA’s Director General Jan McLoughlin. He is the first rat in the charity’s 77-year history of honouring animals to receive a PDSA Medal – joining a line-up of brave dogs, horses, pigeons and a cat.

Over 60 million people living in 59 countries from Cambodia to Zimbabwe, do so in daily fear of landmines and other remnants of past conflict. Landmines are still inflicting pain and fear to a new generation of Cambodian people, a generation that wasn’t even born when these mines were laid. Clearing minefields is intense, difficult, dangerous work and demands accuracy and time. This is where APOPO’s animal detection systems can increase efficiency and cut costs.

APOPO’s Cambodia program began in 2016 and now clears more land each year than any other APOPO program. In 2020 alone, APOPO Cambodia cleared 4,389,935 m2. This would not have been possible without the help of little heroes like Magawa.

Last week was an exciting week for APOPO. A group of 20 newly trained landmine detection rats that arrived in Cambodia in March, were tested by the Cambodian Mine Action Center (CMAC) and passed with flying colors. All the new recruits went through a period of acclimatization and retraining with their new Cambodian handlers. Now that they have received their external accreditation, they have been cleared to join team Magawa on the minefields.

The new squad of HeroRATs arrive at an opportune time, following the expansion of the APOPO Cambodia landmine clearance program, and as veterans like Magawa reach retirement. The additional HeroRATs will help boost the daily square meter coverage and clearance, which allows APOPO to help get local communities back on their land as quickly as possible. Magawa will stay for a few more weeks to mentor and settle the new recruits before he takes a bow. Magawa will certainly make the best mentor a HeroRAT could have, during the new recruits’ first few weeks of work.

Malen, Magawa’s handler, said: “Magawa’s performance has been unbeaten, and I have been proud to work side-by-side with him. 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. But he is slowing down, and we need to respect his needs. I will miss working with him!”

In 2021, Homeland Security Today is sponsoring Gizmo, another of APOPO’s animal detection systems. Gizmo is a HeroDOG who can survey deep into an area without the need to prepare the ground or cut any vegetation. The dogs are trained to indicate when they find the smell of explosives from a safe distance away. Each dog is equipped with the Swiss developed SMART system – a backpack with Global Positioning System (GPS), a speaker and a video camera, that shows and records the dog’s search pattern and location. This allows the handler to instruct the dog through verbal command. When the dog finds an explosive item, the dogs are trained to sit down at a distance of at least one meter and wait patiently for their handler’s next command. This distance keeps the dogs safely out of harm’s way. The system also has the advantage of creating a GPS validated search record, an improvement over existing pen and paper search documentation procedures.

A team of HeroDOGs surveys an area on a minefield twice as fast as traditional methods. On top of that the system generates maps with the survey progress and all the findings, which allows for better evidence-based decision-making on which areas will be released and which need to be cleared.

APOPO’s detection animals are highly valuable assets, making animal welfare and safety a top priority. Just like the HeroRATs, the HeroDOGs are well cared for, receive an excellent diet, regular exercise, stimulation and enrichment and individualized attention from expert handlers.

HeroDOGs and HeroRATs play complementary roles. Technical survey dogs are used prior to clearance, together with the initial historical and geographical surveys that have been carried out to assess the probability of landmines. Detection rats are excellent for clearance of wide mine contaminated areas that have evidence of contamination.

APOPO says the use of HeroDOGs in technical survey applications will pave the way for even more effective use of APOPO’s HeroRATs combining the dog’s surveying speed and the rat’s accuracy of detection. Together, the animals will hugely reduce the time needed to clear a minefield and deliver safe land back to impacted communities.

As for Gizmo herself, she is a loyal Belgian Mallinois Shepherd and was born in February 2017. Her handler says she has incredible energy at work and is always wagging her tail but takes the business of finding landmines very seriously. In the first three months of 2021 alone, Gizmo helped clear 35,472 square meters of land and found 12 landmines and eight unexploded ordinances which were all safely removed, allowing the land to be released back to local villages.

You can adopt a HeroRAT or HeroDog, or make a donation towards their care and training, at APOPO

Kylie Bielby
Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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