It is said that heroes come in all shapes and sizes. A rat has proved why this statement holds good. Magawa, a giant African pouched rat, became the first rat to clinch a top civilian award for animal bravery for his role in seeking out unexploded landmines in Cambodia.
Magawa received the People's Dispensary for Sick Animals' (PDSA)—a British veterinary charity— Gold medal for his "lifesaving bravery and devotion". He peanut and banana loving rat is credited with the discovery of 28 items of unexploded ordinance and 39 landmines over the past seven years, according to PDSA. All the preceding recipients of the award have been dogs, making the victory all the more special.
Bringing Attention to Landmines Through Tiny Steps
The giant rat who loves to play on the running wheel was trained by APOPO, a Belgian organization that has been teaching rats to discover land mines for over 20 years. The body collaborates on mine finding programs in countries such as Angola, Cambodia, Mozambique and Zimbabwe, to find and clear millions of land mines that were abandoned after conflicts and wars.
Magawa has emerged as the most successful rat trained by the group. He has covered over 141,000 square meters of land, which roughly equivalent to the length of 20 soccer fields. Christophe Cox, chief executive of APOPO said that Magwa's award was an honor for the group's trainers.
"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," Cox told AP News.
Well-Suited for the Dangerous Task
Though several species of rodents have the potential to be trained to detect scents and can undertake repetitive tasks for food rewards, the giant African pouched rat was better suited for the task of clearing landmines APOPO. This was because of their long life span of up to eight years and their African origins.
The rat's size—Magawa measures only 70 centimeters—provides it the advantage of being able to traverse through minefields without triggering the explosive devices. Also, they accomplish the tasks at speeds unimaginable by people.
Effect of Landmines on Millions of People
According to APOPO, over 60 million people across 59 countries live with the constant threat of unexploded landmines and ordinances. In 2018 alone, landmines and similar remnants of war claimed the lives or injured 6,897 people, said the group.
The PDSA has been awarding the Gold Medal since 2002 in recognition of acts of exceptional devotion and bravery by animals carrying out civilian services. It is recognized as the animal equivalent of the George Cross, an award to recognize heroism.