Not many people know that rats can be trained at all, let alone be trained to sniff out landmines. Many countries that have faced civil wars and were actively involved during the world wars are still covered in hundreds and thousands of deadly landmines today . Working better than technological devices, trained dogs and rats have proven over the decades to be effective detectors for these threats. However, unlike dogs that may set off the unstable explosives with their significant body weight, rats are essentially weightless and as such, are more effective in carrying out this duty safely.
Last month, a Giant African pouched rat in Cambodia was awarded the prestigious PDSA gold medal, the animal equivalent of the George Cross, for his bravery in detecting landmines and freeing up land that would have been otherwise abandoned . Magawa has cleared over 141,000 square meters in Cambodia, areas accumulating up to the size of over 20 football fields.
Magawa is a trainee in the HeroRAT program of the Apopo, a Belgian nonprofit organization dedicated to training rats to detect landmines. For over 20 years, the Apopo has trained dozens of rats to sniff out these indiscriminate weapons, saving millions of lives and allowing people to utilize their lands for many useful purposes.
Magawa, born in 2014 at the Apopo facility in Tanzania, has been recognized as the organization’s most successful trainee. The exceptional rat received 9 months of training in Tanzania before being sent to Siem Reap, Cambodia in 2016. For the past four years, Magawa has successfully detected 35 landmines and 28 other explosive items across 35 acres of land. Magawa’s amazing service has enabled thousands of Cambodian locals to work and live on their native lands without fear of devastating injuries.
The first of his kind to be honored
The People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA) awarded the dreamy gold medal to Magawa for his life-saving work in Cambodia. The PDSA gold medal was created in 2001, but before that, other awards existed and none had ever been won by a rat since the organization’s inception in 1943. Magawa is the first rat to win a PDSA award in 77 years, and he certainly deserves all the accolades.
In an interview, the Chief executive of Apopo, Christophe Coz said: “To receive this medal is really an honor for us. I have been working with APOPO for over 20 years. Especially for our animal trainers who are waking up every day, very early, to train those animals in the morning. But also it is big for the people in Cambodia, and all the people around the world who are suffering from landmines. The PDSA Gold Medal award brings the problem of landmines to global attention.”
Hero Animals saving lives
The excellent rats in the program and their HeroDOG counterparts are trained to sniff out landmines for food rewards, but Apopo reports that rats do a better job of taking their task seriously. They are highly intelligent creatures and their small size puts them at far less risk of setting off the explosives. For at least a year, the rats are trained to sniff out a chemical component common in landmines before being deployed in the field. Each rat works at least 30 minutes a day in the morning and once they sniff out a landmine, they scratch the top to alert their human handles.
The rats are trained to be alert to the sound of clicks and to sniff for certain target scents. During training sessions, when a rat identifies the correct scent and scratches accordingly, he receives a food reward. Unlike metal detectors that pick up every scrap metal in the ground, rats will only alert humans to landmines.
Cox explains that Magawa can clear an area as large as 2,800 square feet in 30 minutes, a task that would take a human expert at least 4 days to thoroughly complete. The giant rat is six years old and is nearing his retirement age, but Magawa has performed a service so great that he’s finally received the highest honor possible. Well-deserved.
PDSA Director General Jan McLoughlin said: “The work of Magawa and APOPO is truly unique and outstanding. Cambodia estimates that between 4m and 6m landmines were laid in the country between 1975 and 1998, which have sadly caused over 64,000 casualties. Magawa’s work directly saves and changes the lives of men, women, and children who are impacted by these landmines. Every discovery he makes reduces the risk of injury or death for local people.”
Watch Magawa receiving his award:
- ” Land mines still a global threat, despite fewer deaths.” DW. Helle Jeppesen. Retrieved October 5, 2020.
- “Magawa the landmine detection rat given gold medal for bravery.” The Guardian. Retrieved October 5, 2020.