Giant rat earns animal hero award for sniffing out landmines in Cambodia

Clay Curtis
September 26, 2020

The reality is that for every landmine or unexploded remnant he finds, he eradicates the risk of death or serious injury in locations already suffering significant hardship. But specially-trained rats - partly funded by Britain's United Kingdom aid budget - have been able to discover landmines much faster, before they put even more lives in danger.

"It's completely safe for HeroRATs like Magawa to detect landmines and they're very intelligent animals so are easy to train". Then they're trained in scent discrimination: choosing explosive smells over something else, in order to get a food reward. "They can screen an area of 200 square meters in half an hour - something which would take a manual deminer four days", Cox explained at the virtual ceremony.

A rat has for the first time won a British charity's top civilian award for animal bravery, receiving the honour for searching out unexploded landmines in Cambodia.

Magawa detects landmines on the minefields of Cambodia.

The PDSA Gold Medal is the animal equivalent of Britain's George Cross. The tiny little activists are too light to set off the mines, meaning they can safely scurry across the terrain and - with a little training - show local bomb squads where any landmines or other unexploded materials that might be hiding.

Cox said its team of "HeroRATs" speeded up landmine detection due to their keen sense of smell and recall.

"To receive this medal is really an honour for us. I have been working with APOPO for over 20 years", Christophe Cox, chief executive of APOPO, said as quoted by The Guardian.

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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 courageous dogs, horses, pigeons and a cat". When they detect a mine, they lightly scratch atop it, signaling to their handler what they've found.

PDSA Director General Jan McLoughlin said: "The work of HeroRAT Magawa and APOPO is truly unique and outstanding".

In Cambodia alone, since the 1970s, about four to six million landmines were laid, with about three million still undiscovered.

"The PDSA Animal Awards programme seeks to raise the status of animals in society and honour the incredible contribution they make to our lives", she added.

Cox says he hopes the award will bring more attention to the cause that Magawa and his human colleagues are devoted to.

'Magawa's dedication, skill and bravery are an extraordinary example of this and deserve the highest possible recognition.

The country has the highest number of mine amputees per capita in the world - more than 40,000 people.

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