Magawa retired in 2021 after five years of mine detection work.
One of the leading mine-clearing workers in Cambodia died earlier this month after a highly-successful career. His name was Magawa, and he was an African giant pouched rat.
Magawa was part of an initiative by the Belgian nonprofit organization APOPO, which fields specially-trained dogs and rats to sniff out the explosive compounds in landmines and unexploded ordnance. Most of their work is focused in South Sudan and in Cambodia, where the deadly leftovers of late 20th-century wars have killed nearly 20,000 people since 1979 and injured roughly 45,000 more.
Deadly Relics Left By Decades Of War
Some of the explosives, especially in eastern and northeastern Cambodia, are relics of the United States’ 1965-1973 war in neighboring Vietnam. The American-issue threats are mostly unexploded artillery shells, fired during battles along Vietnam’s western border, which landed across the border in Cambodia but didn’t blow up on impact. Similarly, about 1 in every 4 cluster bomblets dropped during the U.S.’ four years of carpet bombing, from 1969 to 1973, hit the ground without exploding. Many of those, too, ended up in Cambodia.
From 1993 to 2017, the U.S. government spent $133.6 million dollars cleaning up minefields and unexploded ordnance in Cambodia – part of the total $400 million in cleanup assistance paid to Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. Thanks to that funding as well as efforts by several international non-governmental organizations, such as the HALO trust and APOPO, about half the minefields in Cambodia have been cleared.
What’s left is a roughly 750 kilometer stretch of northwestern Cambodia along the country’s border with Thailand, an area known as the K5 mine belt. About 1,640 square kilometers of minefields are left to be cleared in the K5 belt, where Vietnamese forces laid minefields throughout the 1980s after invading Cambodia in 1979.
“Many of the remaining areas are the most densely contaminated, including 21 northwestern districts along the border with Thailand that contain antipersonnel mines laid by the Vietnamese military and that account for the majority of mine casualties,” said a 2019 Congressional report.
Another non-governmental organization, the HALO trust, clears hundreds of mines from the area every month.
And it’s a race against time for the many families who have migrated into northwestern Cambodia from other parts of the country in recent years, driven by economic pressures and hoping to make a living farming in the rural provinces. Not only do the mines make it dangerous to till the ground, or even walk to school, along the Thai-Cambodian border, but they make it difficult to build infrastructure to irrigate fields or provide clean drinking water.
“Aren’t You A Little Short For A Minesweeper?”
That’s where the rats come in, along with dogs, metal detectors, and other tools. APOPO’s website claims the organization is currently working with about a dozen dogs and 96 rats in Cambodia and South Sudan, and it’s considering expanding to other war-torn countries. While metal detectors seek out the metal components of landmines and unexploded shells, the dogs and rats are both trained to sniff out the chemical compounds in the explosives themselves.
Bomb-detection dogs are a familiar sign to most modern air travelers, and dogs have helped warn soldiers about hidden explosives, like landmines, since at least World War Two. But working rats?
APOPO claims that African giant pouched rats like Magawa are intelligent enough – and have sensitive enough noses – to do the job. Under good conditions, a rat like Magawa can sniff out a relatively small about of TNT, buried about 15 centimeters deep, from about a meter away. And the rats are smart enough to learn to seek out the right scent in return for a reward from their trainers.
Dogs can already do all of that, so why train rats? Size matters when you’re dealing with pressure-activated antipersonnel mines, it turns out. It takes about 5 kilograms of pressure to activate the pressure switch and set off the mine. But the heaviest male African giant pouched rats weigh in at around 1.5 kilograms, well below that threshold.
But APOPO says it’s not a question of using dogs or rats to clear Cambodian minefields.
“Dogs and rats have complementary roles when it comes to landmine detection,” explains APOPO. “The perfect deployment is a mix of dogs and rats.” The organization sends in its explosive-detection dogs to survey large areas with dense vegetation, while the rats do more detailed searches of smaller areas with less undergrowth.
Winning The Rat Race
Magawa, APOPO’s most successful mine-detection rat on record, found more than 100 landmines in five years of work. In 2020, he received a medal from the British charity People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals – the first rodent ever to do so.
Like APOPO’s other mine-clearing rats, Magawa was born and grew up in the organization’s breeding center in Tanzania. After spending the first few weeks of life with his mother and littermates, Magawa started spending more time with his human trainers, getting carried around cuddled.
At around 10 weeks old, Magawa’s trainer introduced a new concept: a device called a clicker, which makes a clicking noise when the trainer presses a button. Every time Magawa heard that clicking sound, he got a treat. It didn’t take long to make the connection: the clicky noise means food is coming!
“Once the rats have learned clicker/rewards, they are then trained to discriminate between everyday smells and their target scent,” says APOPO. “The rats are introduced to a strong target scent that will be gradually lowered in strength, while dummy scents are gradually added and the training area expanded.”
APOPO is just one of several organizations – some governmental and some non-governmental – working to clear landmines and unexploded ordnance from the former battlefields in Cambodia. And those combined efforts are paying off. The Cambodia Mine/ERW Victim Information System, which tracks landmine casualties in the country, has reported a steady decrease in the yearly number of deaths and injuries from landmines. In Cambodia, 58 people were injured by landmines in 2017, down from 286 in 2010.
Magawa started searching for real-world explosives in Cambodia in 2016 and retired last year.
“Every discovery he made reduced the risk of injury or death for the people of Cambodia,” said APOPO.
Source by www.forbes.com