‘Hero Rat’ Magawa Receives Highest Animal Award
Remember Remy and Templeton, the superhero rats from your childhood? Well, guess what? Their spotlight time is up. We have another little rodent hero. Except this time, it is not about expert cooking or saving pigs; it is about saving human lives.
After the Vietnam War, there were still millions of landmines and unexploded ordinances strewn around South East Asia. Buried by the participants of the war, these explosives are invisible to anyone walking on the ground above them. This is what makes them so dangerous. Someone walking through the fields or village would never know there was a landmine underneath them until it went off. According to the HALO Trust, the world’s largest humanitarian landmine clearance charity, over sixty-four million people, including many children, have been injured from these landmines in Cambodia since 1979. In addition, more than twenty-five thousand people have lost limbs.
This is where our animal friend comes in. Magawa, an African giant pouched rat, was born in Tanzania during the November of 2014. He was raised at the Anti-Persoonsmijnen Ontmijnende Product Ontwikkeling (APOPO), a non-profit organization that, in English, translates to Anti-Personnel Landmines Detection Product Development. APOPO studies how rats and dogs can be used for humanitarian purposes. Rats are an excellent choice for this job. Although they have terrible eyesight, they have an extraordinary sense of smell, and they are too light to trigger a mine.
For nine months, Magawa was trained to sniff out the scent of TNT, a very strong explosive. His reward? Food. Whenever he sniffed out the TNT, he would lightly scratch the surface of the ground, letting his handlers know he’d found something. If he was correct, his trainers would click a clicker, and he would receive a treat - his favorites being bananas and peanuts. The rats are only trained to sniff the TNT, so they ignore the other scrap metal. This is much more accurate than a person using a metal detector.
". . . we came up with the idea of using rats, because rats are fast,” commented Christopher Cox, APOPO’s CEO and co-founder. “They can screen an area of 200 square meters in half an hour – something which would take a human deminer four days.”
After his time of training, Magawa was moved to Siem Reap in Cambodia - a large, historically significant city. There, he met his new handler Malen, and began his successful career. Over the past four years, this rat has helped clear more than one and a half million square feet, which is equivalent to about twenty-six American football fields. The rodent has discovered thirty-nine landmines and twenty-eight items of unexploded ordinances along the way, making him APOPO’s most successful rat.
For his tremendous work, Magawa has been presented the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA) Gold Medal. This is the animal equivalent to the George Cross, which is the second-highest award of the United Kingdom’s honors system. These awards observe extreme bravery. Specially made to fit his tiny body, Magawa was given the medal at a virtual ceremony on September 25, 2020.
“Magawa’s work directly saves and changes the lives of men, women, and children who are impacted by these landmines,” Jan McLoughlin, director of PDSA, said at the ceremony. “Every discovery he makes reduces the risk of injury or death for local people.”
While Magawa does not understand the importance of the award, it symbolizes the world’s dedication to the end of landmines.
If you would like to learn more about landmine clearance, you can visit these websites:
San Francisco Chronicle (article originally published in The New York Times)