A rat may seem like an unlikely candidate to receive a gold medal for bravery and devotion to duty. However, six-year-old African giant pouched rat Magawa, who was honored with British Veterinary Charity PDSA's highest animal award on September 25, 2020, is no ordinary rodent. Over the past five years, the "HeroRAT" has saved hundreds of lives by detecting 39 landmines and 28 unexploded items in Cambodia.
"This is the very first time in our 77-year history of honoring animals that we will have presented a medal to a rat," PDSA Chair John Smith said during the virtual award-presentation ceremony on Friday.
Magawa is one of hundreds of HeroRATs that have been trained to detect landmines by Belgium-based animal charity APOPO since the 1990s. The non-profit, which teaches the animals by rewarding them with tasty food morsels each time they accomplish a task, says the intelligent rodents are ideal for the dangerous job. They are easy to train, and more importantly, light enough not to set off the hidden explosives even if they mistakenly walk over them. The rats, which use their superior sniffing skills to identify the chemicals in landmines, are also more efficient at the job than human-held metal detectors that beep at every scrap of metal.
Though all APOPO rodent "graduates" excel at their "jobs," Magawa, who has been working in Siem Reap , Cambodia, since 2016, is the charity's most successful HeroRAT. In addition to being accurate, the mammal is exceptionally efficient at his job and can sniff out an area the size of a tennis court in 30 minutes. This task would take a human with a metal detector up to four days! Over the past four years, the mighty rodent has helped clear over 141,000 square meters (35 acres) of land, or the equivalent of twenty football pitches. His efforts have allowed local communities to live, work, and play without fear of losing life or limb.
Landmines are concealed devices designed to detonate by the presence, proximity, or contact of a person or vehicle. They were first used in World War II to protect strategic areas such as borders, camps, or important bridges, and to restrict the movement of opposing forces. Since then, they have been deployed in numerous conflicts, including in the Vietnam War, the Korean War, and the first Gulf War.
While the location of each device around the world was carefully marked and mapped during the early years, things became a little lax as the practice continued, making it impossible to remove the explosives once the conflict had ended. Today, over 60 million people living in 59 countries — from Angola to Cambodia — live in daily fear of landmines and other remnants of past wars. Hopefully, with brave detection rodents like Magawa hard at work, the threats will soon be removed.
Resources: www.pdsa.org.uk, www.apopo.org