Rats are often stereotyped as furry vermin who invade houses, spread disease and pilfer cheese. But not Magawa. This 5-year-old African giant pouched rat has been trained to sniff out landmines in Cambodia, and he was just awarded a prestigious medal for his life-saving efforts.
On Friday, Magawa received a PDSA Gold Medal from the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals. The PDSA typically awards the gold medal to dogs and occasionally other animals for “outstanding acts of devotion or valour” in civilian life. Magawa is the only rat to have been granted the honour.
Born in a Tanzania breeding colony in 2014, Magawa was trained by APOPO, a charity that specializes in teaching animals to detect landmines and tuberculosis by scent.
Rats are specifically suited to landmine detection due to their keen sense of smell and the fact that they’re light enough to step over the mines without setting them off, explained Christophe Cox, APOPO’s CEO and co-founder.
“Rats are fast and they can screen an area of 200 square meters in half an hour, something which would take a manual deminer four days,” Cox said in a video PDSA produced that describes Magawa’s accomplishments.
Magawa — praised as a “determined worker and always friendly” on the APOPO website — was trained via clicker and receives food as a reward for detecting scents such as TNT and then signaling to his trainer.
After graduating from training, Magawa went to work in Cambodia, where an estimated 64,000 people have died and more than 25,000 have suffered injuries due to landmines left behind after the fall of the Khmer Rouge communist regime in 1979.
Over the last four years, Magawa has rooted out 39 landmines, 28 bits of unexploded ordnance, and cleared more than 141,000 square meters of land.
Magawa’s handler for APOPO, So Malen, said she was proud of her furry pupil’s accomplishments, calling him a “great partner.”
Yet Magawa’s illustrious career may soon be nearing an end. APOPO estimates that its rats generally only work in the field for four to five years before they enjoy a comfortable retirement with lots of snacks.
For Magawa, who likes napping and feeding on bananas and peanuts when he’s not working, it would be a well-deserved rest.