‘Hero Rat’ receives highest animal award

Rat saves lives by sniffing out landmines from the Vietnam War

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Remember Remy and Templeton, the superhero rats from your childhood? Well, guess what? Their spotlight time is up. We have another little rodent hero. Except this time, it is not about expert cooking or saving pigs. It is about saving human lives. 

After the Vietnam War, there were still millions of landmines and unexploded ordinances strewn around Southeast Asia. Buried by the participants of the war, these explosives are invisible to anyone walking on the ground. This is what makes them so dangerous. Someone traveling through the fields or village would never know there was a landmine underneath them until it went off. 

According to the HALO Trust, the world’s largest humanitarian landmine clearance charity, over 64 million people, including many children, have been injured from these landmines in Cambodia since 1979. In addition, more than 25,000 people have lost limbs. 

This is where our animal friend comes in. Magawa, an African giant pouched rat, was born in Tanzania in November of 2014. He was raised at the Anti-Persoonsmijnen Ontmijnende Product Ontwikkeling (APOPO), a nonprofit organization that in English translates to Anti-Personnel Landmines Detection Product Development. 

APOPO studies how rats and dogs can be used for humanitarian purposes. Rats are an excellent choice for this job of clearing landmines. Although they have terrible eyesight, they have an extraordinary sense of smell, and they are too light to trigger a mine. 

For nine months, Magawa was trained to sniff out the scent of TNT, a very strong explosive. His reward? Food. Whenever he detected the TNT, he would lightly scratch the surface of the ground, letting his handlers know he found something. If he was correct, his trainers would click a clicker, and he would receive a treat – his favorites being bananas and peanuts. 

The rats are only trained to sniff the TNT; they ignore other scrap metal.  This is much more accurate than a person using a metal detector. 

“We came up with the idea of using rats because rats are fast,” commented Christopher Cox, APOPO’s CEO and co-founder in an NPR article.  “They can screen an area of 200 square meters in half an hour – something which would take a human deminer four days.” 

After his time of training, Magawa was moved to Siem Reap in Cambodia. There, he met his new handler Malen, and began his successful career. 

Over the past four years, this rat has helped clear more than 1.5 million square feet, which is equivalent to about 26 American football fields. The rodent has discovered 39 landmines and 28 items of unexploded ordinances along the way, making him APOPO’s most successful rat.  

For his tremendous work, Magawa was presented the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA) Gold Medal last year. This is the animal equivalent to the George Cross, which is the second-highest award of the United Kingdom’s honors system. These awards observe extreme bravery. Magawa was given a medal specially made to fit his tiny body at a virtual ceremony on Sept. 25, 2020. 

“Magawa’s work directly saves and changes the lives of men, women, and children who are impacted by these landmines,” Jan McLoughlin, director of PDSA, said at the ceremony, according to a New York Times article. “Every discovery he makes reduces the risk of injury or death for local people.” 

While Magawa does not understand the importance of the award, it symbolizes the world’s dedication to the end of landmines. 

If you would like to learn more about landmine clearance, you can visit these websites and articles:

This article first appeared in The Talon, the student news site of Clayton Valley Charter High School in Concord.