Howes the HeroRAT continuing the legacy of a fallen hero in Cambodia

MAG_Handler with Howes 2@2x

Battambang, Cambodia.

A landmine detection rat named in honour of a hero deminer and former British soldier is continuing his legacy 25 years after his murder. Howes, the HeroRAT, has started her new job on June 1st, clearing the deadly legacy of conflict in Cambodia. She is named in honour of Christopher Howes, a deminer who was murdered, with his colleague Houen Hourth, by the Khmer Rouge in 1996.

Chris and Houen were working with the Nobel Peace Prize-winning British landmine charity the Mines Advisory Group (MAG). They were kidnapped along with their team on 26 March 1996. Chris and Houen successfully urged the release of the team, offering to stay with their captors to secure their colleagues’ freedom. 

They were both murdered days later by Khmer Rouge guerillas. Chris was just 36, Houen not yet 20.

“Chris and Houen were killed while carrying out their life-saving work freeing communities from the fear of landmines,” says MAG’s Cambodia country director, Alexey Kruk. “They were selfless and brave — we remember them as heroes.” 

Christopher, who served with the Royal Engineers for seven years before joining MAG, was posthumously awarded the Queen’s Gallantry Medal in 2001.

“He was passionate about the landmine cause,” remembers Pat Phillips, Christopher’s sister. “He always assured us he was careful at his job and wouldn’t be hurt, but murder was another thing.”

Now, 25 years later, Howes, the HeroRAT, is joining a team of landmine-sniffing rats working in Cambodia with MAG. Pat is pleased to see Christopher’s legacy honoured; “The void left in our lives by my brother’s needless murder is undiminished. He had so much more to give. But to see his name and his life-saving work continue is a fitting tribute to a loyal, brave and exceptional man.”

Howes was trained by APOPO, that made international news last year when its landmine-sniffing rat Magawa won a PDSA Gold Medal bravery award in September last year. Magawa made new headlines as APOPO announced his retirementthis month.

“She is an African giant pouched rat perfectly suited to sniffing out landmines,” explains Christophe Cox, APOPO’s CEO: “Landmines remain as painful and dangerous reminders of the past. HeroRATs like Howes significantly speed up landmine detection using their amazing sense of smell and excellent memory. Unlike metal detectors, the rats ignore scrap metal and only sniff out explosives making them fast and efficient landmine detectors. Fate has brought Howes back to Chris’ team to continue the good work he began. Only with strong partnerships like these can we hope to keep the promise to declare as many countries as possible landmine free by 2025.”

Howes is following in the footsteps of her award-winning colleague Magawa. She is already active and joined the MAG-APOPO project on June 1st. It was Magawa who inspired Mark and Cheryl Appleby, old school friends of Christopher’s, to support the charity when they saw APOPO’s work in action during a mission whilst in Cambodia to pay tribute to their friend. During that visit, Cheryl and Mark also brought Chris’s story to the charity’s attention and persuaded APOPO to name Howes in his honour.

MAG has worked in Cambodia since 1992 and has found and destroyed more than 314,000 landmines and unexploded bombs and cleared almost 112 square kilometres of safe land back to communities. 

APOPO has worked in Cambodia in partnership with the Cambodian Mine Action Centre (CMAC) since 2014 and has found and destroyed 17,718 landmines and unexploded bombs and released over 23 square kilometres of safe land back to communities. 

MAG and APOPO have been working in collaboration in Cambodia since 2020.

Photo credit © MAG

APOPO MA Cambodia is most grateful to its donors and partners who are
instrumental to the success of our landmine clearance program.