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A heroic bomb-sniffing rat, credited with saving human lives, has died

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

OK, we have some sad news out of Cambodia this week. A beloved rat named Magawa has died. And before you laugh, listen to this story.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The 8-year-old rodent spent most of his life with his nose to the ground, sniffing out landmines. Thanks to his incredible sense of smell, he is believed to have actually saved lives.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MICHAEL HEIMAN: He has a very strong character. He's very quick, and he's a hard worker. But he's also the first one to take a nap when there is a short break.

MARTIN: That's Michael Heiman. He spoke to NPR in 2020. He worked with Magawa in Cambodia through a nonprofit called APOPO.

INSKEEP: The program trains and dispatches rats to post-conflict countries. Magawa was perfect for the job because he was too small to trigger buried explosives. He used to wear a little harness attached to a rope as he scavenged across the ground for the scent of TNT.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

HEIMAN: He's searching back and forward, back and forward until his area is completely cleared. If there is a mine, Magawa will start scratching.

INSKEEP: And the scratching alerted his team of humans, who would then dig up the explosive with the help of metal detectors.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOVELS DIGGING)

INSKEEP: Magawa would earn a banana treat while a bomb disposal team safely detonated the ordnance.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSIVE DETONATING)

MARTIN: In Cambodia, over 19,000 people have been killed by landmines. After decades of war, millions of mines and bombs are buried there. A Cambodian farmer named Den Deum talked with the South China Morning Post in 2019. As a boy, Den lost an eye from a landmine explosion. Now Den has kids of his own, and the organization APOPO sent rats to clear explosives from his family's farmland.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DEN DEUM: (Non-English language spoken).

MARTIN: "Now my children can run free without any fear," Den says.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DEUM: (Non-English language spoken).

MARTIN: "Everyone here is so grateful to the animals. It just makes me happy."

INSKEEP: And as for Magawa, who earned the title HeroRAT, he enjoyed a year of well-deserved retirement. According to APOPO, he uncovered more than 100 landmines, more than any other rat in their program.

(SOUNDBITE OF OF WATER'S "THE POWERS OF THE UNIVERSE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.