Human Interest

Landmine-detecting rat 1st to win PDSA Gold Medal for bravery, duty

Bangkok Desk, Sep 25 (efe-epa).- A landmine-detecting rat in Cambodia on Friday became the first to be given a prestigious award for bravery and devotion to duty.

The five-year-old African giant pouched rat named Magawa was presented with British veterinary charity People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals’ Gold Medal, the animal version of the George Cross (which has previously gone mostly to dogs) for his “life-saving devotion to duty, in the location and clearance of deadly landmines in Cambodia.”

Cambodia is the second most mine-affected country in the world after Afghanistan, and up to 6 million landmines are thought to have been laid between 1975-1998, with up to 3 million yet to be found, PDSA said.

The hidden mines have caused around 64,000 casualties in the country, which has the highest number of mine amputees per capita in the world – over 40,000 people, it added.

“The whole team is very, very excited. It’s not often a rat gets recognized for their bravery and hard work,” his handler in Siem Reap, So Malen, told EFE by email.

“Magawa will enjoy wearing his PDSA gold medal and getting an extra treat along with his colleague HeroRATs to celebrate the day,” she added.

The rat-sized medal is inscripted with a laurel wreath and the words: “For animal gallantry or devotion to duty.”

Five-year-old Magawa, whose official job title is HeroRAT, was born and trained in Tanzania by the charity APOPO, which has been training rats to detect landmines since the early 1990s.

It takes nine months to fully train a HeroRAT, which is done using “clickers” to receive tasty rewards for finding a correct target scent.

Although the rats are big – Magawa weighs 1.2 kilograms and is 70 centimeters long – they are too light to set off landmines and they ignore scrap metal to only sniff out explosives, which they alert their handler to by scratching the ground’s surface.

Since his 2014 arrival in Cambodia, Magawa has discovered 39 landmines and 28 items of unexploded ordinance, making him the charity’s most successful HeroRAT. He has also helped clear more than 141,000 square meters (20 football pitches) of land.

He can search an area the size of a tennis court in 20 minutes, which would take a technician with a metal detector up to four days, APOPO said.

“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,” PDSA Director General Jan McLoughlin said in a press release.

His “dedication, skill and bravery are an extraordinary example of this and deserve the highest possible recognition,” she added.

When he’s not saving lives, in his spare time Magawa chews on his favorite foods peanuts and bananas – and watermelons at the weekend – and runs on a wheel in the play area.

“When he is up for work he is very quick and decisive, but he is also the first one to take a nap during a break,” APOPO said.

As the rats have a lifespan of around eight years, Magawa will likely retire early next year. He will continue to be cared for and enjoy his playing and relaxing, but relieved of his important duties in the field. EFE-EPA


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