The PDSA award committee was impressed by Magawa's skill of detecting underground mines and felt he deserved a gold medal for his bravery.
Magawa is no ordinary rat, at least he’s not the sort living wild on the streets, burrowing its way under train tracks in underground stations, or digging up bulbs in your garden. Quite the contrary –– he is a sophisticated African giant pouched rat trained in Tanzania and helping the people in Cambodia.
Magawa detects landmines on the minefields of Cambodia. Due to his unique gift of being highly sensitive to the chemical smells of unexploded landmines, and crucially too light to detonate them, he is being used to sniff out explosives by the Belgian charity, APOPO.
In his illustrious career, which includes being crowned with a ‘rat-sized’ PDSA Gold Medal, Magawa has discovered 39 landmines and 28 items of unexploded ordnance to date. His achievements have made him APOPO’s most successful HeroRAT.
APOPO CEO Christophe Cox says the charity was founded in 1997 in tandem with the University of Antwerp in Belgium, but is now based in Tanzania. “Cambodia is one of the countries most contaminated with landmines,” he tells TRT World, “and we’ve been there quite some years helping them clear the land.”
Cox’s school friend, Bart Weetjens, had conducted research in landmine clearance and determined that detection was the most difficult and costly part of the process.
Their professor suggested the use of the African giant pouched rat, an intelligent, easy-to-train nocturnal animal, replete with a highly developed sense of smell. After a feasibility study in Belgium, APOPO was set up to prepare the rodents in Tanzania.
African giant pouched rats are in training from nine months to a year in order to become HeroRATs. These animals, who live up to the age of eight, are more accurate than metal detectors because they do not pick up on scrap metal, simply the scent of the explosives in the landmines.
According to press materials, during his time in Cambodia, Magawa “has helped clear over 141,000 square metres of land (the equivalent of twenty football pitches), allowing local communities to live, work and play without fear of losing life or limb.”
Asked when Magawa would retire, Cox laughs and says: “Animals are like people. Some like to retire and rest, some like to keep working after retirement. If he is in good health and eager, he can continue working.” The rat, he says, will be six years old in November.
Cox says they are honoured to receive the PDSA Gold Medal for him, and that it has brought welcome attention to their charity, APOPO. He invites people from around the world to ‘adopt’ a rat to support their charity.
The PDSA Gold Medal, awarded by UK veterinary charity PDSA, is the animal equivalent of the George Cross, awarded for “acts of the greatest heroism or of the most conspicuous courage in circumstances of extreme danger.”
PDSA [People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals] was established in 1917 by animal welfare pioneer, Maria Dickin, and is entirely supported by donations from the public.
The organisation has, in its 77-year history of honouring animals, awarded many creatures, but Magawa is the first rat to receive an accolade, “joining a line-up of brave dogs, horses, pigeons and a cat.”
“We don’t seek out animals to award,” PDSA Director General Jan McLoughlin tells TRT World. “People nominate animals for their acts of bravery or devotion for the awards, and we review all nominations.”
“Reading everything that Magawa had done, we felt that he was deserving of the PDSA Gold Medal,” she adds. As for Magawa being the first rat to receive such an award, McLoughlin says “his particular skills of detecting and alerting humans to explosives underground has made us think he was worthy of the award,” she says.
According to McLouhglin, PDSA does not pick award recipients based on the type of animal, but from nominees each year, and this just happened to be the first year that a rat was nominated.