You may have heard of dogs being trained to detect explosives, but did you know that rats can also do the job? In fact, an exceptional rat is being rewarded for his skill and honored for his bravery. Magawa, an African giant pouched rat, has just been awarded the PDSA Gold Medal for bravery to save lives. He was the first rat in the 77-year history of this award to win a medal.
Magawa was born in Tanzania in 2014 and was trained by the nonprofit Apopo to detect explosives through its HeroRAT program. For more than 20 years, the organization has been training rats to detect landmines and tuberculosis. Magawa grew up at the Apopo campus in Tanzania, and he was trained for 9 months before being sent to Siem Reap, Cambodia, in 2016.
As Apopo’s most successful trainee, Magawa has found 39 mines and 28 unexploded items in the past 4 years. His exceptional detection skills have cleared nearly 35 acres, allowing these communities to live, work and farm the land without fear of injury.
“The work of HeroRAT Magawa and Apopo is truly unique and excellent. Cambodia estimates between 4 and 6 million landmines were laid in the country between 1975 and 1998, which sadly caused more than 64,000 casualties,” said PDSA Director General Jan McLoughlin.
“The work of HeroRAT Magawa directly saves and changes the lives of the men, women and children affected by these landmines. Each of his discoveries reduces the risk of injury or death for locals.”
PDSA, founded in 1917, is the UK’s leading veterinary charity. The organization hosts the PDSA Animal Awards every year, which “recognize animals with extraordinary courage or exceptional devotion to duty.”
Since 1943, it has awarded military service animals, while the Gold Medal – honoring civilian animals – was started in 2002. Magawa was the first non-canine to win the Gold Medal and joined an outstanding team of dogs, horses, pigeons, and cats that have won civilian or military medals.
These rats’ work is significant, as more than 60 million people living in 59 countries from Angola to Cambodia live in fear of encountering landmines. These landmines not only cause physical harm but also prevent communities from making meaningful use of their land. These mines also cut off transportation routes, leaving people isolated and unable to return home after being displaced by war.
“Apopo’s HeroRATs significantly accelerate mine detection thanks to their excellent sense of smell and amazing memory,” said Apopo CEO Christophe Cox. “We use clicker training to teach rats like Magawa to scratch the ground above a landmine. During training, they will hear a “click” and receive a delicious food reward when they find the right scent of the target.
Unlike metal detectors, rats ignore scrap metal and only sniff out explosives, making them fast and efficient mine detectors. Not only does this help save lives, but it also returns much-needed safe land to the community quickly and cost-effectively. This will allow families living around minefields to improve their livelihoods and get their lives back on track.”
Watch Magawa, the giant African pouched rat receive an award for animal bravery!