It might seem unlikely but Magawa, a giant African pouched rat, has just won a PDSA gold medal for work that has saved countless lives in Cambodia. It is the animal equivalent for the George Cross which is the second highest honour in the UK. He has detected 39 landmines and 28 unexploded items over 5 years on the job. In doing so, he has helped to clear 141,000 square metres of land or 20 football pitches making them safe for humans to use again for activities such as safe travel and agriculture.
The use of rats like Magawa for this purpose started with Tanzanian charity APOPO who have been training them since the early 1990s. Magawa was trained to pick up the scent of explosive chemicals and scratches the top of the surface to tell their human co-workers where they are. Rats are much more effective than humans in this role for two reasons: they are much too light to set off a landmine and they can clear an area the size of a tennis court in half an hour compared to human counterparts with a metal detector who may take up to 4 days.
Magawa is the most successful detector rat in history and is also the first rat to receive the PDSA award which has previously been awarded to dogs, horses, pigeons and a cat. CEO of APOPO Christophe Cox paid tribute to Magawa saying his work ‘not only saves lives but returns much-needed safe land back to the communities as quickly and cost-effectively as possible.’