'Hero rat' renowned for record-breaking Cambodia land mine detection dies

He was dubbed the “hero rat” after detecting more than 100 landmines and other explosives in Cambodia.

But after a brief retirement, Magawa died on Sunday, according to the Belgium-based charity APOPOwho trained him in Tanzania before he was seconded to the Southeast Asian country in 2016.

The African giant opossum “was physically strong, so every day it searched more land than other rats and found more mines than others,” Michael Heiman, program manager of APOPO in Cambodia, told NBC News in a phone call on Wednesday.

“Because the handlers loved him so much, they used him more than others, which is also a factor in why he found so many items,” he added.

Announcing the rat’s retirement last June, APOPO said in a press release that Magawa had found 71 landmines and 38 duds, making it the “most successful” demining rat. In his five-year career, he’s helped clear more than 225,000 square feet of land, he added.

Magawa, an African giant opossum, has been trained by Belgian charity APOPO to detect land mines. Cover photos / via Zuma Press

With an excellent sense of smell and memory, the rats can search an area the size of a tennis court in 30 minutes, which would take a human with a metal detector up to four days, according to the charity, which also trains the creatures to spot tuberculosis, says on his website.

Light enough not to set off the mines, they’re taught to ignore scrap metal and only sniff out explosives, it says, adding their training takes about nine months.

Cambodia has the highest number of amputees per capita, with more than 40,000 people losing limbs to explosives.

During a civil war in the Southeast Asian country between 1975 and 1998, an estimated 5 million landmines were laid in Cambodia, mostly in the northern region along the Thai border, making farmland unsafe for farming and affecting communities and livelihoods. More than 386 square miles of land is still contaminated.

Heiman said that due to his age, Magawa’s handlers noticed a decrease in his agility and movement. The creature was 8 years old at the time of its death, equivalent to 100 human years, he added.

Magawa was awarded a 2020 Gold Medal for his lifesaving work by the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals, a UK veterinary charity. He was the first rat to receive this award.

Rebecca Buckingham, the charity’s awards manager, said Wednesday he was “a very worthy recipient of the medal”.

She added that his legacy “will live on for decades to come in the lives he saved through his incredible work detecting landmines in Cambodia.”

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