Meet Magawa, the tiny hero that has become the first rat to earn a gold medal for bravery. Magawa received the animal equivalent of the George Cross, awarded by the UK honors system "for acts of the greatest heroism or for most conspicuous courage in circumstance of extreme danger".
Rats have a reputation for being dirty disease carriers, which they don't deserve at all. For centuries they were maligned as the carriers of the plague that wiped out one-third of the population of Europe. Mathematical modeling of the disease has since shown that the virus was likely spread by dirty, disease-carrying humans. Rats, ubiquitous but minding their own business, were the perfect scapegoat.
Magawa is an African giant pouched rat that has been working as a landmine detection rat in Cambodia and putting human counterparts to shame. Trained by the Anti-Personnel Landmines Removal Product Development (APOPO) in Tanzania to detect the scent of chemicals within the explosive devices, he was then flown out to Cambodia to acclimatize before being deployed in the field.
Giant pouched rats have an excellent sense of smell, and aid their human colleagues in a multitude of ways, from sniffing out diseases to fighting crime. They are also incredibly efficient at detecting landmines, especially compared to humans who rely on metal detectors. While humans waste time finding and investigating scraps of metal, rats head straight for the landmines they can smell, alerting their handlers usually through scratching at the ground.
Magawa in action.
Magawa has discovered 39 landmines and 28 items of unexploded ordnance, clearing over 141,000 square meters (1.5 million square feet) of land, the most successful rat in APOPO's history. He can search an area the size of a tennis court in 30 minutes, a feat which would take a human with a metal detector four days, the charity People's Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA) said in a statement emailed to IFLScience.
For his hard work, he has been awarded the PDSA Gold Medal for lifesaving bravery and devotion to duty. Of the 30 animals awarded the medal so far, he is the first rat.
“The work of HeroRAT Magawa and APOPO is truly unique and outstanding," PDSA Director General Jan McLoughlin said. “Cambodia estimates that between 4 and 6 million landmines were laid in the country between 1975 and 1998, which have sadly caused over 64,000 casualties.
“HeroRAT 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."