This Mine-Sniffing Rat Received an Award for His Life-Saving Work

 In Afghanistan, Syria, U.S. Army, U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Marine Corps, U.S. Navy, Iraq

Unless their name is Remy and they’re adept at prepar­ing French cui­sine in an ani­mat­ed Disney movie, rats are often viewed neg­a­tive­ly by humans. Despite this, rats have served humans as med­ical and sci­en­tif­ic test sub­jects includ­ing cancer research and space travel. However, one rat has gone above and beyond in his ser­vice to the human race.

Magawa is a seven-year-old male African giant pouched rat work­ing in Cambodia where he employs a very spe­cial skill. Trained by the Belgian-reg­is­tered APOPO char­i­ty, Magawa has the abil­i­ty to detect land­mines and alert his human han­dlers to their pres­ence. APOPO spe­cial­izes in train­ing rats to detect both land­mines in the earth and tuber­cu­lo­sis in human sputum sam­ples. The rats are referred to as HeroRATs and are cer­ti­fied for their spe­cial­ized task after a year of train­ing.

The HeroRATs are trained to detect spe­cif­ic chem­i­cal com­pounds found in explo­sives. This means that they are not dis­tract­ed or con­fused by scrap metal and are more effi­cient at locat­ing buried land­mines. When they do find a land­mine, the rats are trained to scratch the earth in order to alert their human han­dlers. The HeroRATs “sig­nif­i­cant­ly speed up land mine detec­tion using their amaz­ing sense of smell and excel­lent memory,” said APOPO’s chief exec­u­tive Christophe Cox. “This not only saves lives, but returns much-needed safe land back to the com­mu­ni­ties as quick­ly and cost-effec­tive­ly as pos­si­ble.” According to the HALO Trust, the world’s largest land­mine clear­ance char­i­ty, land­mines and other unex­plod­ed ord­nance in Cambodia have result­ed in over 64,000 injuries and 25,000 record­ed ampu­ta­tions since 1979.

Magawa was born and raised in Tanzania, weighs 2.6 pounds and mea­sures 28 inches long. Though he and his African giant pouched rat brethren are sig­nif­i­cant­ly larger than other species of rat, they are small and light enough to step on the land­mines that they are seek­ing with­out det­o­nat­ing them. Magawa is capa­ble of clear­ing a tennis court-sized field in just 20 min­utes. APOPO says that the same field would require up to four days for a human to clear with a tra­di­tion­al metal detec­tor. Magawa has sniffed out 39 land­mines and 28 unex­plod­ed muni­tions and cleared over 1.5 mil­lion square feet of land in his four-year career.

Magawa sniffs for explo­sives (PDSA)

For his incred­i­ble accom­plish­ments and ser­vice, Magawa was rec­og­nized by the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals, a British animal char­i­ty found­ed in 1917 during WWI. The PDSA pre­sent­ed Magawa with their Gold Medal on September 25, 2020. The medal bears the inscrip­tion “For animal gal­lantry or devo­tion to duty” and has been award­ed to 30 ani­mals, of which Magawa is the first rat. “Magawa’s work direct­ly saves and changes the lives of men, women, and chil­dren who are impact­ed by these land­mines,” said PDSA Director General Jan McLoughlin. “Every dis­cov­ery he makes reduces the risk of injury or death for local people.”

Although he is the most suc­cess­ful mine-detect­ing HeroRAT, Magawa works just one half hour in the morn­ings. “He is very quick and deci­sive,” said Malen, Magawa’s main han­dler, “but he is also the first one to take a nap during a break.” Malen’s last name has been with­held for pri­va­cy. In his down­time, Magawa enjoys run­ning on his wheel and is par­tial to snacks of bananas, peanuts, and water­mel­ons. “He is very spe­cial to me,” Malen said of Magawa. The two have been work­ing togeth­er for four years.

As HeroRATs gen­er­al­ly have a field career of four to five years, Magawa is near­ing retire­ment. APOPO says that once they enter retire­ment, they are given plenty of play and exer­cise. In the mean­time, a PDSA spokesper­son expects that Magawa will receive a more prac­ti­cal reward in addi­tion to his medal. “I hear he’s par­tial to bananas and peanuts,” Emily Malcolm said, “so I’m sure he will be get­ting a few extra treats.”

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