The medal, awarded on Friday, marked “saving courage and commitment” for landmine detection in Cambodia. Its recipient: a rat named Magawa.
Magawa is the first rat to receive a gold medal from the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals, a British charity often referred to as the St. George’s Animal Cross, after a tribute usually given to civilians who recognize acts of bravery and heroism.
When Magawa discovered 39 landmines, 28 unexploded ordnance and helped clear more than 1.5 million square feet of land in the past four years, only after the fictional Remy rat from the 2007 Pixar-Disney movie Ratatouille has the rat has done so much to challenge the public̵7;s view of them as the creatures most often seen roaming the sewers and subways.
“Magawa’s work directly saves and changes the lives of men, women and children affected by landmines,” said Ian McLaughlin, CEO of the charity, which presented the award in an online ceremony. “Every discovery he makes reduces the risk of injury or death to locals.”
“Magawa’s perseverance, skill and courage are an extraordinary example of this and deserve the highest recognition,” Ms. McGlain said.
It is estimated that more than five million landmines were planted in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge displacement and internal conflicts in the 1980s and 1990s. Part of the country is also littered with unexploded ordnance dropped during US airstrikes during the Vietnam War, according to a 2019 report by the US Congressional Research Service.
More than 64,000 people have been injured in landmines and other explosives in Cambodia since 1979, and more than 25,000 have been amputated, according to the HALO Trust, the world’s largest humanitarian mine action charity.
Magawa, a 5-year-old giant African rat larger than the average rodent, is part of the Rat Hero initiative, run by Belgian nonprofit APOPO, which operates in Southeast Asia and Africa to train rats to save lives. detection of landmines and tuberculosis.
Magawa, the most successful rat in the program, was trained to detect TNT, a chemical found in explosives. The ability to sniff out TNT makes it much faster than anyone looking for landmines, as it can ignore scrap metal, which is usually picked up by a metal detector.
He can search an area the size of a tennis court in 30 minutes, while a person with a metal detector will usually need four days to search an area of that size. When he finds a mine, he signals to his handler, scratching the ground above it. Unlike humans, the Magawa is too light to detonate a mine, so there is minimal risk of injury.
Rats like Magawa “significantly speed up the detection of landmines, using their amazing sense of smell and excellent memory,” said Christophe Cox, head of APOPO. “It not only saves lives, but returns much-needed safe land to communities as quickly and economically as possible.”
The People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals has been awarding awards for valor to animals for 77 years, and the evaluation is conducted by a board of directors and trustees of the charity.
And yet Magawa’s brilliant career may soon be over, as APOPO estimates that her “Hero Rats” have been working in the field for four to five years, after which they are given a pension filled with play and exercise.
Currently, Emily Malcolm, a spokeswoman for PDSA, said the rat may be in line for a more edible bonus.
“I hear he’s fond of bananas and peanuts,” she said, “so I’m sure he’ll get some extra treats.”