Magawa the Mine-Sniffing Rat Receives Award for Bravery in Cambodia

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.

Not since the fictional Remy of the 2007 Disney-Pixar film “Ratatouille” has a rat done so much to question the public’s view of animals as creatures that scurry through sewers and the subway more often: Magawa has discovered 39 land mines and 28 pieces of unexploded ordnance and has helped clear more than 1.5 million square feet of land over the past four years.

“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. McLoughlin.

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.”

Magawa is described by Malen, who is primarily in charge, as friendly and hardworking and has a work-life balance that many people are likely to envy. “He’s very quick and determined,” said Malen in a statement from the People’s Department for Sick Animals, “but he’s also the first to take a nap during a break.”

When he’s not in the minefield, the two-foot-long rat loves to eat bananas, peanuts, and watermelons and spin on the impeller.

“He’s very special to me,” said the dog handler, whose last name the charity hadn’t given for privacy reasons and who has been working with Magawa for four years. “He has found many landmines in his career and saved many lives for the Cambodian people.”

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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