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.”
Originally published September 28, 2020.