Rat That Sniffs Out Land Mines Receives Award for Bravery

The medal awarded on Friday praised the “life-saving bravery and fulfillment of duty” for the detection of landmines in Cambodia. Its recipient: a rat named Magawa.

Magawa is the first rat to receive the award – a gold medal given by the People’s Department for Sick Animals, a UK charity. This is often referred to as the “George Cross of the Beast” after an honor normally bestowed on civilians who recognize valor and heroism.

After Magawa discovered 39 landmines and 28 unexploded ordnance in the last four years and helped clear more than 1.5 million square meters of land, this has not been the case since the fictional rat Remy from the Disney film “Ratatouille” by 2007 did a rat doing a lot to challenge the public’s view of them as creatures that scurry through sewers and the subway more frequently.

“Magawa’s work is directly saving and changing the lives of the men, women and children affected by these landmines,” said Jan McLoughlin, director general of the charity, who presented the award in an online ceremony. “Every discovery he makes reduces the risk of injury or death to the local people.”

“Magawa’s dedication, skill and bravery are an exceptional example of this and deserve the highest recognition possible,” said Ms. McLouglin.

It is believed that more than five million landmines were laid in Cambodia during the fall of the Khmer Rouge and internal conflicts of the 1980s and 1990s. Parts of the country are also littered with unexploded ordnance dropped in United States air strikes during the Vietnam War, a 2019 report by the Congressional Research Service found.

Since 1979, more than 64,000 people have been injured by landmines and other explosives in Cambodia, and more than 25,000 amputees have been registered there, according to the HALO Trust, the world’s largest humanitarian landmine charity.

Magawa, a 5-year-old African giant rat rat, is bigger than the average rodent and is part of the Hero Rat initiative of the Belgian nonprofit APOPO, which works across Southeast Asia and Africa training rats to save lives and detect landmines and tuberculosis.

Magawa, the most successful rat to have participated in the program, has been trained to detect TNT, the chemical compound in explosives. The ability to spy on TNT makes them much quicker than any other person to find landmines because they can ignore scrap metal that is normally picked up by a metal detector.

It can search an area the size of a tennis court in 30 minutes, while a person with a metal detector typically takes four days to search an area that size. When he finds a mine, he signals his handler by scratching the earth over it. Unlike humans, Magawa is too light to detonate a mine, so the risk of injury is minimal.

Rats like Magawa “greatly speed up landmine detection by using their amazing olfactory senses and memory,” said Christophe Cox, CEO of APOPO. “Not only does this save lives, but it gives much-needed safe land back to communities as quickly and cheaply as possible.”

The People’s Department for Sick Animals has been giving awards to animals for bravery for 77 years. Judging is made by a jury made up of directors and trustees of the charity.

But Magawa’s brilliant career could soon come to an end, as APOPO estimates that its “hero rats” work on site for four to five years and then receive a retirement full of play and movement.

At the moment, Emily Malcolm, a PDSA spokeswoman, said the rat could be lining up for a more edible bonus.

“I hear he likes bananas and peanuts,” she said, “so I’m sure he’ll get some extra goodies.”

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