Every 30 minutes, Magawa can sweep the equivalent of a tennis field, finding landmines and other unexploded objects. Over the course of his career, Magawa has uncovered 39 landmines and 28 items of unexploded ordnance in Cambodia.
Now, Magawa has been awarded a miniature PDSA Gold Medal, the animal equivalent of the George Cross in the UK or Medal of Valor in the US, for his exceptional deeds.
It’s the first time the PDSA animal bravery medal has been awarded to a rat. Most winners are police dogs that have shown extreme bravery — in fact, all winners so far have been dogs. A special, miniature medal had to be tailored for Magawa.
“This is the very first time in our 77-year history of honoring animals that we will have presented a medal to a rat,” said John Smith, the chairman of PDSA.
Magawa was trained by APOPO, a non-profit organization that uses African giant pouched rats to save lives by detecting landmines and tuberculosis. For APOPO, this was an emotional acknowledgement of their contributions.
“To receive this medal is really an honour for us,” said Christophe Cox, chief executive of APOPO. “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. The PDSA Gold Medal award brings the problem of landmines to global attention.”
Magawa is the most successful in the history of APOPO, but pouched rats in general are very effective at identifying landmines. For starters, they are intelligent and not shy to do repetitive tasks for food. They are also light (which means they have far less risk of triggering a mine), and fast.
The rats are trained to detect a tell-tale chemical compound within explosives, and it takes about a year before they are set for deployment. They typically work about 30 minutes a day; when they detect a landmine, they scratch the top to alert their human handlers.
Over 60 countries are riddled with hidden landmines and other explosive remnants of war. In any given year, 15-20,000 people are killed or maimed by landmines, with 1 in 5 of them being children. In addition to the direct damage they do, mines also prevent local populations from developing local land. This is why the work of Magawa and the rest of Magawa’s colleagues at APOPO is so important.
PDSA director general Jan McLoughlin said:
“The work of Magawa and APOPO is truly unique and outstanding.”
“Cambodia estimates that between 4m and 6m landmines were laid in the country between 1975 and 1998, which have sadly caused over 64,000 casualties. 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.”
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