Landmine detection rat in Cambodia wins gold medal for life-saving work

September 27, 2020

A landmine detection rat in Cambodia was awarded a gold medal from British veterinary charity People's Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA) for his work detecting landmines in the country, the PDSA said in a statement on Saturday.

African giant pouched rat named Magawa was given his medal by PDSA's director general Jan McLouglin in a special virtual presentation on Friday, making him the first rat to receive a PDSA award, the statement said.

Magawa, whose official job title is HeroRAT, was trained in Tanzania by a landmines detection charity called APOPO to detect the scent of the explosive chemicals used in landmines and point them out to their handlers, it said.

The rats are the only animals who can safely detect these mines due to their light weight and keen sense of smell.

According to the statement, Magawa has so far discovered 39 landmines and 28 items of unexploded ordnance during his seven-year career.

"During his career, he has helped clear over 141,000 square meters of land (the equivalent of 20 football pitches), making it safe for local people," it said.

African giant pouched rats are very intelligent and so easy to train, the statement said, adding that Magawa began training from a young age and he passed all his tests with flying colors before being sent to Cambodia to work on mine fields.

He has been taught to ignore any scrap metal lying around, but is so much faster at finding landmines than people would be, and he can search the area of a tennis court in 30 minutes, something that would take a human with a metal detector up to four days.

"When Magawa detects a landmine by the chemicals used in it, he signals to his handler. They know that where Magawa signals is the exact location because his sense of smell is so good, and so can dispose of the mine safely," the statement said.

"On a daily basis, HeroRAT Magawa's work is life-saving and life-changing and has a direct impact on the men, women and children in the communities in which he works," it said. "For every landmine or unexploded remnant he finds, he eradicates the risk of death or serious injury in locations already suffering significant hardship."

Regional and internal conflicts from the 1960s to late 1998 had left Cambodia as one of the most mine and explosive remnants of war affected countries in the world. An estimated 4 to 6 million landmines and other munitions were left over from the almost three decades of conflicts.

It's estimated that around 3 million of those landmines are still unfound, the statement said.

According to the Cambodian Mine Action and Victim Assistance Authority (CMAA), from 1979 to June 2020, landmine and unexploded ordnance (UXO) explosions had killed 19,789 people and either injured or amputated 45,102 others.

CMAA's First Vice President Ly Thuch said the Southeast Asian nation is committed to clearing all types of landmines and UXOs by 2025 and to achieve this, it is seeking a total budget of 377 million U.S. dollars from other countries and development partners.