And the award goes to… a rat? But Magawa is no ordinary rodent. He is an African giant pouched rat trained to sniff out landmines. Larger than the average rat, Magawa, at 70cm long and 1.2kg, is still lightweight enough not to trigger a landmine.
Well-loved by his handler Malen, Magawa is described by his employer as a ‘determined worker and always friendly’. He works for 20 minutes in the morning, has the weekend off and has an assured retirement plan. Not bad for a rat.
APOPO (Anti-Personnel Landmines Detection Product Development) is a Belgian non-profit organisation which has been training rats to detect landmines since 1997. They joined the demining efforts in Cambodia in 2014. Magawa is APOPO’s most successful HeroRAT, having discovered 39 landmines and 28 items of unexploded munitions to date, in 141,000 square meters — that’s the size of 20 football pitches.
With each discovery, he prevents another person from being maimed or killed.
After three decades of war, it is estimated that there are four to six million landmines laid in Cambodia, with about three million still to be detected. Cambodia has one of the highest casualty rates in the world with 25,000 amputees recorded since 1979.
Magawa was born in Tanzania at the APOPO headquarters and travelled to Siem Reap in 2016 where he is stationed. He is seven years old and has spent five years working in the field. African giant pouched rats have an extraordinary sense of smell which make them perfect for the job. At four to five weeks, the rats are exposed to all sorts of sights, noises and smells to prevent them from being skittish.
Their training takes about a year and includes uncovering TNT-scented paper in metal tea eggs buried in the soil. To graduate, they need to be able to clear a specified area without missing any mines.
Magawa can cover a 200 square metre minefield in 20 minutes.
A human with a metal detector would take up to four days to demine the same area. Since rats’ olfactory senses detect only objects with explosive chemicals and ignore uncontaminated scrap metal, they are more efficient. When Magawa locates a landmine, he scratches the ground to signal the exact location. The landmine is subsequently either exploded on the spot or moved to a controlled area to be detonated.
You can watch how Magawa was trained on the APOPO website.
The People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals’ (PDSA) Gold Medal is also known as the animals’ George Cross. It is the highest honour awarded by the UK charity for civilian acts of animal bravery and dedication to protecting civilian life. The medal is inscribed with the words ‘For animal gallantry or devotion to duty.’ The organisation has awarded 30 Gold Medals. The other 29 were awarded to ‘man’s best friend’.
APOPO trained rats are also used to help diagnose tuberculosis in collaboration with over 100 public clinics in Tanzania, Mozambique and Ethiopia. They hope to be able to train rats to identify other diseases in the future.