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Magawa, a heroic bomb-sniffing rat who is credited with saving lives, has died

Magawa is shown here working to detect land mines, a job the animal did for years.
Magawa is shown here working to detect land mines, a job the animal did for years.

A rat named Magawa, who has died during retirement at the age of eight, sniffed out dozens of land mines over the course of his career in Cambodia. He is believed to have saved lives and has been widely lauded as a hero.

"His contribution allows communities in Cambodia to live, work, and play; without fear of losing life or limb," the nonprofit APOPO said Tuesday.

Magawa retired last year as the most successful explosive-sniffing rat the organization ever trained. His caretakers said he remained playful until last week, when he slowed down and had less of an appetite.

Magawa was a Tanzanian-born African giant pouched rat. With careful training, he and his rat colleagues learned to identify land mines and alert their human handlers, so the mines can be safely removed.

Even among his skilled cohorts working in Cambodia, Magawa was a standout sniffer: In four years he helped to clear more than 2.4 million square feet of land. In the process, hefound 71 land mines and 38 items of unexploded ordnance.

In 2020, Magawa received one of Britain's highest animal honors.

In a virtual ceremony, the U.K. charity PDSA gave Magawa its gold medal for his lifesaving work.

"This is the very first time in our 77-year history of honoring animals that we will have presented a medal to a rat," PDSA Chair John Smith said during the proceedings.

Magawa's medal was perfectly rat-sized and fit onto his work harness.

Christophe Cox, APOPO's CEO and co-founder, said at the time that the organization began exploring new explosive-detection techniques after an analysis found that land mine detection was "the most expensive and tedious part of the problem."

"That's why we came up with the idea of using rats, because rats are fast. They can screen an area of 200 square meters in half an hour – something which would take a manual deminer four days," Cox said at the virtual ceremony.

Magawa was born in Tanzania in 2014, socialized and moved to Siem Reap, Cambodia, in 2016 to begin his bomb-sniffing career.

APOPO uses positive reinforcement methods that give the rats food rewards for accomplishing tasks such as finding a target or walking across a surface. Then they're trained in scent discrimination: choosing explosive smells over something else to get a food reward.

Though they have terrible eyesight, the rats are ideal for such work, with their extraordinary sense of smell and their size – they are too light to trigger the mines. When they detect a mine, they lightly scratch atop it, signaling to their handler what they've found.

Their reward: a banana.

Cox said previously that the rats have freed more than 1 million people from the terror of living with land mines.

As APOPO said Tuesday, "A hero is laid to rest."

Editor's note: Parts of this story were originally published in September 2020 and have been updated.

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Merrit Kennedy is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers a broad range of issues, from the latest developments out of the Middle East to science research news.
Laurel Wamsley is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She reports breaking news for NPR's digital coverage, newscasts, and news magazines, as well as occasional features. She was also the lead reporter for NPR's coverage of the 2019 Women's World Cup in France.