A giant African pouched rat trained to detect landmines in Cambodia has been awarded a gold medal for his “lifesaving bravery and devotion to duty”.
Magawa is known as a Hero Rat and is the most successful rat trained by Belgium-based animal charity APOPO. Since his training, he has discovered 39 landmines and 28 items of unexploded ordnance, clearing over 141,000 square metres of land – equivalent to 20 football pitches.
On Friday, he was formally presented with a miniature PDSA Gold Medal, the animal equivalent of the George Cross, and is the first rat to receive a PDSA Medal since the charity began honouring animals 77 years ago.
Magawa joins a line-up of brave dogs, horses, pigeons and a cat.
Christophe Cox, chief executive of APOPO, told the PA news agency that the medal was “really an honour” for the charity, where he has worked for over 20 years.
“Especially for our animal trainers who are waking up every day, very early, to train those animals in the morning.
“But also it is big for the people in Cambodia, and all the people around the world who are suffering from landmines,” he added. “The PDSA Gold Medal award brings the problem of landmines to global attention.”
The Cambodian Mine Action Centre estimates there may be as many as six million landmines and other pieces of unexploded ordnance in the ground in Cambodia, but some estimates run as high as 10 million.
The explosives were laid in the country between 1975 and 1998 due to internal conflicts and have caused more than 64,000 casualties. Cambodia has the highest number of mine amputees per capita in the world, with more than 40,000 people suffering as a result of the mines.
Rats are intelligent and easy to train, as they will work at repetitive tasks for food rewards better than other animals, said Mr Cox. Their size also means they are in less danger as they comb fields for landmines.
APOPO also trains rats to detect tuberculosis. The animals undergo a year of training before they are certified, working for around half an hour every day, in the early morning.
The rats are trained to detect a chemical compound within the explosives, and once a landmine has been detected, they scratch the earth above to alert their handler. They ignore any unrelated scrap metal, meaning they work faster than metal detectors.
Magawa can search the area of a tennis court in 30 minutes – a feat that would take a human with a metal detector up to four days to complete.
PDSA Director General Jan McLoughlin said: “The work of HeroRAT Magawa and APOPO is truly unique and outstanding.
“HeroRAT Magawa’s work directly saves and changes the lives of men, women and children who are impacted by these landmines. Every discovery he makes reduces the risk of injury or death for local people.
“The PDSA Animal Awards programme seeks to raise the status of animals in society and honour the incredible contribution they make to our lives.
“Magawa’s dedication, skill and bravery are an extraordinary example of this and deserve the highest possible recognition. We are thrilled to award him the PDSA Gold Medal.”